Sega Saturn Appreciation and Emulation Thread

DT MEDIA

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NiGHTS: Into Dreams; Christmas NiGHTS (1996, Sonic Team)

I.

Yuji Naka is the head of Sonic Team, one of the finest videogame studios to emerge in the past two decades. Breaking through in 1991 with Sonic the Hedgehog, Naka created the first truly classic platform game to break away from the slavish Mario mold. This spirit of creativity carried through the 16-bit era (Sonic CD, Sonic 2, Sonic 3 & Knuckles), up to today, with brilliant, original works like Chu Chu Rocket!, Samba De Amigo, and Phantasy Star Online. Naka's crowning achievement is as well-loved as any Sonic Team classic. That game is NiGHTS: Into Dreams, and it is, without question, among the greatest videogames ever made.

NiGHTS appeared on the struggling Saturn in 1996, just when Nintendo had unveiled Super Mario 64, Eidos Interactive introduced Tomb Raider, and Naughty Dog released Crash Bandicoot. This was a heady, revolutionary time, as the rules and conventions of the 3D videogame were being mapped out. Shigeru Miyamoto, of course, would win the day with Mario, as he had so many times before, but because NiGHTS was released on the less-successful Saturn, Sonic Team's efforts were largely overlooked, except by the Sega faithful and die-hard gamers.

If you invested the time, you would discover a game that was, in its own quirky way, nearly as innovative and forward-thinking as Super Mario 64. The challenge was how to take the traditional 2D videogame experience, and bring it into a three-dimensional world. While Mario 64 created a whole new experience while keeping the spirit of the old 2D Super Mario, NiGHTS struck a balance between the old and new, a game world that weaves between 2D and 3D.

NiGHTS tells the story of two children, Claris and Elliot, who have never met but come together in shared lucid dreaming. They encounter an androgynous jester (who vaguely resembles Prince), who flies, twirls, and loops around surreal fantasy worlds, featuring clock gardens, dark forests, icy snow caps, and…well, it doesn't really make much sense.

Each level, or "dream," begins with one of the children walking around a fully 3D environment. When the gem they are carrying is stolen, they run towards a gazebo where NiGHTS awaits. You then take control of our hero, who flies along a set 2D path that loops and curves around the environment, collecting blue spheres in a set time-limit. Imagine Sonic blazing through loops and vaults, but without the foreground graphics.

What makes NiGHTS play so brilliantly is that the character is always centered on the screen. This is a common convention in 2D, but it is easily lost in 3D. The worst thing Sonic Team did in Sonic Adventure (1999) was to pan the camera away from Sonic as he jumped the loop-de-loops. The viewer is taken out of the action, which kills the fun; the joy of these games comes from being flung across the screen with the hero. That roller-coaster thrill, that old Sonic rush, NiGHTS delivers it in spades. Add in an ever-turning camera (this is still a 3D world), and you have a game that is as fast, possibly faster, than anything before.

NiGHTS is a masterpiece of subtlety. At first glance, you see a game that feels more 2D than 3D. But over time, and repeated playing, the many layers emerge. The children, for instance, can avoid the gazebo and wander around, discovering many surprises. There are surprise pathways; surprise bonuses hidden on the air tracks; surprises that seem minor, but enhance the enchanted feel of the world (like leading a car back to its garage).

The greatest surprise of this game has to be the Nightopians. This feature is so subtle that it may be overlooked for the first few hours, but it is no throwaway. Pians are, in fact, one of the pioneering Artificial Life experiments, which became hugely popular with Tamagotchi. In NiGHTS, Pians are little creatures who populate the landscape, flying about, building things, taking naps. They will also mate and lay eggs, which can be hatched by NiGHTS or the children. Your behavior also has an effect. Pians can be (accidentally) killed, or scared away, which affects the music. But kind treatment of the Pians will have its rewards, which I will leave for you to discover.

The sense of flying is wonderful. That mix of improvisation and racing is simply unmatched. NiGHTS can perform two dozen different stunts when flying; there are several places where this can be done for bonus points, but most of the time, this is simply an opportunity for the players to improvise. The act of flying in this game is not unlike abstract painting, with its swift, sweeping movements and colorful accents.

Regardless of the Saturn's hardware difficulties, Sonic Team achieved a stunning level of beauty in NiGHTS; confident, colorful, and bristling with life. Everything just looks wonderful: the rush of the waterfalls, the crunch of snowballs, the whole psychedelic craziness of it all. This is without question the most tripped out videogame ever made. The best example is the "Soft Museum," a dream sequence involving a world where the ground literally bends and warps when walked on. Sonic Team also delivers a wonderful musical score, one that is at times epic and theatrical, but also laid-back and casual. Everything just fits together so perfectly.

NiGHTS is the sort of videogame that requires one to examine everything else in a new light. Just what kind of game is this? Is it a platformer, like Sonic the Hedgehog? An old-school arcade game? Is it a racing game, a virtual pet, or an adventure? It is really a combination of all these things. That's probably the best explanation I could offer. What a fantastic, visionary work.

II.

Christmas NiGHTS is a special demo release was released in only limited quantities through various videogame magazines in 1996, and today has become a sought-after collector's item. It includes two of the dream stages from the main game, which you can play as either of the children, allowing you to play through each dream's four courses and face the flying frog boss at the end.

This demo makes novel use of the Sega Saturn's internal clock to affect the game. For example, the graphics are rendered in a Christmas setting during the Holiday season, with trees, bells, candles and holly seen everywhere, the holiday songs sung in the background. On rare occasions, you may even spy Santa and his reindeer flying in the distance. There are also variations for New Year's Day, Valentine's Day, and other select dates. You can change your system’s settings manually if you wish to see any of the seasonal variations. The Christmas mode is always available for play throughout the year.

The other notable feature are presents which are awarded in a matching-tile game. You are given a number of tries after completing the NiGHTS dream world. These bonus items include CG character art, time attack and link attack modes, a two-player versus mode, a karaoke mode, a Nightopian monitor (which observes their overall mood in the game, and can be adjusted on the fly), and two promotional videos. The best surprise is a cameo by Sonic the Hedgehog, who becomes playable in the demo. Dr. Robotnik/Eggman also makes a cameo as the end boss.

The American release of Christmas NiGHTS has become very rare and expensive as prices have exploded in recent years. The game was also given a retail release in Japan with the standard CD jewel case and color instruction manual. I picked up a copy for ten dollars, which is an enormous bargain. Readers should note that the storybook clips are spoken in Japanese and are not subtitled in English, but you can easily follow along. The wonderful acapella performance of the NiGHTS theme song that appears after you complete the two dream stages remains in its native English.

I skipped NiGHTS when it was released in 1996, as I was spooked by the tepid, almost apologetic tone of the coverage in Next Generation magazine. "It's too strange. It's too unusual. Nobody will understand it. It's not in the same league as Super Mario 64." Because of this, it wasn't until I found a copy of Christmas NiGHTS at a local Blockbuster Video store for five dollars that I decided to give the game a try. I immediately fell in love with the demo disc, especially the quest to unlock all the presents and bonus features. I soon bought a copy of the full game and never looked back.

Any proper remake of NiGHTS must include the Christmas NiGHTS disk in its complete and unabridged form. It is a perfect companion piece to Yuji Naka's finest hour, and easily stands as the best videogame demo ever created.

(Update 5/23: Revised the text on Christmas NiGHTS and added new screenshots showing the demo disc in widescreen mode.)
 
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DT MEDIA

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Sega Rally Championship (1995, AM3)

The Sega Saturn had its best holiday season in 1995, with the spectacular 1-2-3 punch of Virtua Fighter 2, Sega Rally Championship, and Virtua Cop. The console was almost immediately written off in favor of Sony's Playstation, and that first months as a Saturn owner was rough. These three games were just about the best to ever grace the console, and immediately renewed our faith. For a short while, Saturn had the best fighter, the best racer, and the best shoot-em-up.

Ah, well, PSX won out with practically everything else. But there was still a spirit of competition in 1995. We were hoping for a repeat of the classic console war between Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo. Sadly, it was not to be, but that had more to do with the evolution of videogames into 3D and the rising dominance of polygon graphics. PSX was the future, while Saturn had one foot planted in a 2D world that suddenly fell out of fashion.

In any case, Sega Rally Championship is one of Saturn's finest hours. It's easily the best racing title on the system, a belief that became very frustrating to Saturn fans like me. I have no idea why the graphics engine wasn't ported around and used in a dozen other videogames. Sega kept to a rigorous pattern of repeating the same formula every Christmas: fighting game, racing game, light gun game. The fighting titles improved with Fighting Vipers and Fighters Megamix, and Virtua Cop 2 was simply smashing; the rail car shootout remains unsurpassed for thrills and spills. But the racing titles were often disappointments, never equalling what AM3 achieved in ‘95.

Sega Rally is intelligent, brilliant, requires a lot of planning and heavy thinking, and definitely many replays. It's a very short game, like most racers of the 32-bit era, but you always wanted one more try. Rally racing was new, and the thrill of leaping across mud, dirt, water, and pavement was new, exciting. These four courses were densely packed with details, and required different enough skills to always keep you on your toes.

What makes this videogame special is the vehicle’s handling. No other videogame captures the nuances of driving on multiple surfaces so perfectly. Racing over concrete is different from racing over dirt or mud; the tires and suspension react differently, the steering requires different levels of pressure. You can almost feel the grooves in the dirt as you blaze through a medium turn. Many racers never bother to capture the full experience, pretending that a car has one large, imaginary wheel under the middle of the chassis. You can tell the difference when you’re playing almost immediately (it’s my one annoyance with Excite Truck on Nintendo Wii), and it makes all the difference in the world.

Desert is the easiest course, and probably the most fun because of all the mud. There are a series of leaps that land you in puddles that always excites, especially when you're fighting against opposing cars. This is especially fun in two-player mode, and is also greatly improved in "reverse" mode, which was a common method to squeeze more mileage out of the same racetracks.

Forest course has all those magnificent pine trees, a sharp turn inside a tunnel, and a tricky series of hard corners along the mountain’s edge. Each of these challenges are harder to navigate, and all the more satisfying. It's less a battle against rival drivers than the elements. This is an excellent example of racetrack design during the 32-bit era, where the limits of 3D graphics forced designers to create winding, twisting courses that surprise you every second.

Mountain course is a tough challenge, no question about that. It looks spectacular, with its crowded city streets, cobblestone bricks, and towering mountains. There's another nasty hairpin turn that can leave you in the bushes, gasping for air. The streets are also very narrow, which leads to some great jostling among vehicles. This is a great course for knocking your opponent around, and I can only imagine what it would be like to have more human players racing at once (multiplayer is strictly limited to two cars). Four or eight racers would be spectacular, in fact, Sega would be wise to reissue the original Sega Rally with more players. Hint, hint.

Finally, there is the bonus Lakeside course, awarded for winning the rally race. It's not as overly punishing as the mountain stage, just a series of endless sharp turns on narrow dirt roads with hard banks on all sides, but highly challenging nonetheless. Smacking your car into the sides is frustrating, but with enough practice, you can master your timing and sail through without a hitch. If you can make it to the finish line in one piece, you've earned some primo bragging rights.

I also love this stage’s wonderful autumnal setting, with leaves turning colors and ducks flying over the lake. Sega Rally always looks so spectacular. Every single detail stands out, boldly, confidently. Sega clearly needed to get past Saturn's shaky start; its first wave of videogames were plagued with glitchy graphics, and the reputation as a difficult console cursed with half-assembled parts proved crippling. Sega worked themselves to the bone to demonstrate Saturn's 3D powers, and Sega Rally is one of their finest examples.

Sega Rally Championship is a hallmark of the classic arcade racer. It delivers immediate arcade thrills in the finest Sega tradition (nobody could match Sega’s driving games), matched with a dedication to strategy and realism closer to simulations. Sega continued to push this envelope with arcade hits such as Touring Car Championship and Ferrari F355 Challenge.

One last note: “Game Over, Yeah” is the best ending music in the history of videogames. Thank God Fensler Films used it in their G.I. Joe cartoon parodies. Everybody should be stealing that line.

(Update 5/22: I added new screenshots. There are far too few Sega Rally photos online. As always, share and share alike.)
 
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The original Shienryu has a Options menu from where you can choose several vertical display modes. I haven't personally checked if it's truly 240p as the internet says, but I've tested Espgaluda which indeed does 240p in tate mode, so it's very likely to be true.
So, a report back on this!

Shienryu has an Option menu that you can select by tapping Down on the stick (one of those old school menus). I selected 'Horizontal Low' and it does display the game at a clean 240p. Looks and plays great in full Tate with beautiful, solid scan lines. I gotta thank you because I'd written this game off as non-Tate only (for the console versions). Must've read some bad info online or something.

No apparent way to adjust X and Y, but the image seemed to fill the screen without overscanning.

This is a really terrific essay on Twinkle Star Sprites. I was eyeing this disc in my library today while prepping my next batch of reviews, as I've always enjoyed the game, but I never fully understood its mechanics and often felt that I was missing something. I should sit down and play one of these days.

I'm looking forward to your next essay review, as well as any stories or discussions by the NeoGAF crew. We need more Saturn fans over here.
Thanks for the kind words! I'll keep chipping away at the games I know pretty well on the Saturn. I have a smaller collection ("only" 30 games) but they are hand-picked across shmups, puzzle games, and fighters, so I will try to keep bringing my knowledge to the table when I write these.

Same to you, by the way. I'm eager to read your next write-up. Reading about Shienryu made me crack out my copy. Got all the way to Stage 4 on one credit. A night spent playing Shienryu is a good night indeed.

Yes! Dig into Twinkle Star and learn the mechanics. They are deceptively simple but nuanced. If you can convince some friends to play local with you, all the better! Looking forward to some anecdotes from you if you decide to dig into it.
 
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A review of SEGA Rally and NiGHTS in the same night? All I can say about SEGA Rally is that the drifting still feels very tactile to this day. Favorite part of the game, as weird as that sounds.

As for NiGHTS, I never really "got it" even after multiple attempts. To be fair, I also didn't really have a clue as to what was going on each time I played. Your write-up gave me a better understanding of how the game works.
 
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Salamander 2


Salamander


Life Force

Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus (1997, Konami)

Saturn shmup fans are in for a treat as this is one of my all-time favorite shmup franchises. I have no intention of being brief as I gush about these games. Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus grants you three full arcade-perfect titles, each worthy members of any shmup fan's collection: Salamander, Life Force, and Salamander 2. Sadly, none of these games are very well-known or popular. Perhaps the series was overshadowed by the likes of Gradius and TwinBee, Konami's much better-known franchises. Or maybe the genre-blending gameplay wasn't to gamers' liking. Whatever the case, Salamander is a forgotten fragment of the vast shmup pantheon. If you enjoy the no-nonsense style of shmup that was present through the mid-80s to mid-90s (before everything got flipped on its head by Battle Garegga and DoDonPachi) then Salamander is a wonderful look back. The games are a stoic memorial to that long-dead era of dodging fast bullets, navigating narrow tunnels, and "shooting the core".

My experience with Salamander began with its own spinoff, Life Force, on the Nintendo Entertainment System. It was a bizarre sequel to a kid who'd played the heck out of Gradius during the previous year. The power-up system and the player ship were both the same, but the theme was biological instead of sci-fi. Gone were the alien ships and turrets, replaced by mushy tentacle-bosses and living walls that could be shot to pieces. It was definitely fun like Gradius, but there were some differences. Let's get the confusing part out of the way: there are numerous versions of Salamander and Life Force depending on the region and release. SEGA Saturn's triple-pack comes with the Japanese arcade versions of Salamander, Life Force, and Salamander 2. The American arcade Life Force, Japanese Famicom Salamander, American NES Life Force, MSX Salamander, and PC Engine Salamander all have specific differences, additions, omissions, and changes that make them distinct from one another although not wholly different games. The differences are mainly found in the level layouts, overall difficulty, and the music. Confused? It's okay. If you want to "get into" Salamander, either the SEGA Saturn collection (which we're talking about here) or the Playstation Portable collection are the best ways to do so, all things considered.


Salamander

Anyway, back to what matters. Salamander differs from Gradius in four significant ways. First, you can play co-op. By today's standards this might not seem like a big deal, but you'd be hard-pressed to find many shmups from this era that offered simultaneous co-op play. Powerups are plentiful which makes playign with a buddy an easier way to play through the game. Don't expect to clear it on just one or two credits without significant practice, though. Second, the power-ups for your speed, Option, and weapons are represented by individual icons that you collect from the stage, unlike Gradius which uses a selection bar. Life Force returns to the use of Gradius' selection bar, for what it's worth. Third, when you die you continue right where you left off instead of reverting back to the dreaded checkpoint, a system used by many shmups from this era that has thankfully gone out of style. Lastly, the gameplay alternates between horizontal and vertical levels. This adds a ton of variety. It helps that the maps and enemy patterns for both orientations meet Konami's excellent standards. I'd say that I love either type of maps equally in the Salamander series. There are also high-octane "speed zones" that force the player to deftly navigate narrow tunnels as the scrolling speed increases. All of these elements blend together to create a cohesive, unique shmup experience and these tweaks help Salamander stand out despite being a 30-year-old franchise. Similar to how Blaster Master and Guardian Force feel "fresh" after all these years due to their genre-blending gameplay, Salamander remains fresh even though many shmups have come and gone. The games feel complete and robust, despite lacking the various Arrange modes and alternative scoring methods that we've come to expect from more modern releases. When revisiting games this old it's easy to give them a pass or not expect much in the way of content or variety, but I think Salamander defies those expectations. It's still really good.

You battle through bizarre biological structures and enemies, the sort that you might find in R-Type or Abadox. Salamander's theme plays a big role in maintaining your interest, since we've all played "yet another sci-fi shooter" but biological themes are quite rare nowadays. Powerups are much easier to come by compared to Gradius. Since you revive immediately after death, Salamander feels much quicker, much faster, much more engaging than the nail-bitingly-plodding Gradius. It's closer to something like Thunder Force III or Layer Section in its intensity and speed which is all the more fascinating when you consider the year it released. Enemy and boss variety hold up over the course of the six stages in each title. Salamander 2 in particular gets really weird with its locales and enemies, not that I'm complaining.


Salamander 2

Life Force is the odd duck of the collection. It isn't the same as the NES version I grew up playing, but it's similar enough (same power-up system, nearly the same graphical style, music, and level design). The major boon for fans of the original NES Life Force is that the Saturn version looks and sounds much nicer. Although it technically came out first, you could consider it an upgraded remix of the NES version, for all intents and purposes. Since Life Force goes back to using Gradius' iconic selection bar, the pace slows down in comparison to the two Salamander games. Death matters more. Missing power-ups matter more. Overall, it's more challenging than either of the Salamander games and feels the most straightforward in its design. That said, the gameplay holds up and the bosses are still a treat to take down.

Salamander 2 is arguably the best game of the bunch. Obviously, graphics and sound design were greatly improved in the gap between Life Force's 1987 Japanese arcade release and Salamander 2's 1996 release. Being the final game in the franchise, Salamander 2 is an admirable send-off, being "more of the same" instead of attempting to reinvent the franchise's conventions. That isn't a bad thing, necessarily. The pre-rendered CGI sprites and the 2D graphics have aged gracefully in terms of visual presentation (whereas full 3D shmups like RayStorm and Silpheed have not aged so well...). The gameplay is essentially unaltered compared to the previous Salamander title, the only notable exception being that you can use Options to pull off powered-up moves.



All three titles in the collection boast a good soundtrack, the sort of toe-tapping Konami stuff that you'd expect from a Turtles in Time or Castlevania or any other arcade-worthy title. Fans of Gradius will be pleased to hear a few throwbacks to songs from the first few Gradius titles, too. Examples below:

Salamander 2 | Salamander | Life Force

Hopefully you'll take a second look at the Saturn Salamander collection. Though the games are old, you get three top-tier shmups on one disc. A used copy will cost you quite a bit, but considering the number of games you get I think it's worth the asking price.
 

DT MEDIA

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Guardian Heroes (1996, Treasure)

By nearly all accounts, Treasure's Guardian Heroes is just about the greatest thing to happen to Sega Saturn, a 2D spectacular dazzles the eyes, ears and itchy trigger fingers of all players. Nearly all modern polls of Saturn's finest games ranks this title among the very top, a defining classic for the system's library. If you are a fan of arcade beat-em-ups like Double Dragon, Final Fight and Streets of Rage, you're going to love this game.

Back in 1996, however, the mood of the gaming public was very different. 2D videogames were as dead as leisure suits in the 1980s or synth pop in the 1990s. The entire art form was massively out of fashion, killed by new technologies such as pre-rendered CG and texture-mapped polygons. For gamers always hungry for the "next big thing," sprite graphics were the kiss of death.

Sony successfully rode the new wave of 3D graphics to legendary success with their Playstation system, and Nintendo successfully established a new paradigm for 3D videogames with Super Mario 64, but Sega was hit hardest by this sea change. Their Saturn was envisioned as the best of both worlds, a continuation of the 2D arcade games of the Sega Genesis and an exploration of the new 3D frontier of arcade hits like Virtua Fighter and Daytona USA. Two decades later, this feels like a reasonable, almost cautious strategy, and if the winds of fashion had not blown so harshly, the Fifth Generation may have ended differently.

But the winds come and go. Fashion rises and falls. Greatness lasts. Today, Guardian Heroes more closely resembles the latest pop craze on iOS, or the latest indie hit on consoles. It feels very fresh and vital and new, and its excitement can hardly be contained. When playing, you feel a rush as though lightning were shooting out of your fingers, your pulse racing as you face endless waves of soldiers, ogres, wizards and giant plants that want to stomp you flat. It's great fun, gloriously attractive and endlessly addicting.

Treasure are the madcap developers behind this game, and they're known for their freewheeling subversive style that takes established videogame genres and turns them on their heads. Their software library is a virtual must for all budding diehard gamers: Gunstar Heroes, Dynamite Headdy, Alien Soldier, Silhouette Mirage, Radiant Silvergun, Sin and Punishment, Mischief Makers, Bangai-O, Ikaruga. The mid '90s marked the studio's creative and commercial peak. Many studio could deliver zany or surreal games, but Treasure had the classic arcade skills to match, and that's why their name remains revered to this day.

Guardian Heroes is Treasure's take on the beat-em-up genre, mashed up with elements of fantasy role-playing games. You play as a band of adventurers who discover a mysterious sword and find themselves suddenly attacked by the kingdom's royal knights who seek the weapon. A mysterious female warrior arrives at your side, imploring you to fight back. The battle spills out into the town streets and your team gathers at a neighboring cemetery, where you are ambushed by the prince of the kingdom. During the fight, something unexpected happens: the sword flies from your grip, floats in the air, then flies over a grave. An armored skeleton emerges with the sword in hand and immediately begins to fight the enemy army. You quickly discover that this is the sword's original owner and he now obeys your commands. Your team now must begin its quest to solve the mystery of the sword and the kingdom, where you will meet a wide cast of characters good and bad, and a story with numerous surprises and twists.

The gameplay is fascinating. You move along a strictly linear plane in the style of Kung-Fu Master, only moving left and right, but you can also jump along three separate planes in the background. Skilled players will learn when to jump planes to either attack enemies or avoid damages and buy some time. Each player-character is armed with an impressive arsenal of moves, which include standard attacks, combos and magic spells. Each character has a unique set of skills and stats which emphasize one style of play or another. The burly fighter is good for direct attacks but cannot use magic. The magic girl can employ many magic attacks but is physically weak. In addition, you gain experience points as you defeat enemies, which will not only raise your abilities but reward you with "stat points" at the end of each stage, where you can raise your abilities as you wish. As there are not enough stat points to maximize all your abilities, you will have to choose which abilities to build. This gives you a great amount of freedom to experiment and adds greatly to the replay value.

During your quest, you are offered multiple pathways or choices to follow. For example, after resurrecting the golden warrior and defeating the fighters in the cemetery, you have the option to proceed to the next town, a nearby village, or a forest. There are 30 stages in all, only a fraction which is seen on any given quest. There are seven different endings and five different final villains, depending on which path you've chosen, which foes you've defeated and which friends you've helped. In addition to this, Treasure added a "karma" rating for your character, which can rise or fall based on your actions, such as breaking barrels, killing civilians, attacking fleeing soldiers or continuing to attack defeated foes. Several, if not all, of the endings have a "dark" variation if you finish with negative karma. Either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain, I suppose.

Guardian Heroes is filled with gameplay subtleties that emerge over time. Magic spells can affect you as well, such as touching an enemy who has caught on fire. Attacks can be added into combos or buffered together, allowing for more powerful attacks. Blocking and dodging attacks is an essential skill that will ensure your survival (I can't remember another brawler with blocking). The undead hero can be guided with a series of commands from "attack" to "defend" that can be changed on the fly. The larger and more challenging enemies employ stronger defense and require a bit of tactics to defeat (you can't get beat the game by mashing buttons), and is especially true with the epic boss fights.

Visually, Guardian Heroes presents a spectacular buffet of 2D graphics, using Sega Saturn's VDP2 powers to great effect. The screen is often filled with characters, trees, pillars, tables or other objects. Character designs are heavily anime-inspired, with thick black outlines and sparing use of colors. Its look is slightly pixelated, and there are some larger opponents that are clearly scaled sprites, making for a very stylishly blocky look (I'm reminded of the Atari Lynx). For critics, this was slightly jarring in 1996, further proof of the supremacy of pre-rendered CG and polygons, but I believe Treasure deliberately designed this as a style, as though you are taking animation cels and zooming them in and out.

There are many highly impressive visual effects, including transparencies in foreground objects and magic attacks. One character wears a transparent pink cape that looks very nice, but also demonstrates the Saturn's famous difficulties with alpha blending, as its graphics are layered on top of one another much like cel animation. Again with the anime influences. In still photos, you may see how some tricks were performed. In action, everything looks smooth and sublime, and you wonder why more videogames of that era couldn't follow this style. I would have killed to see a Castlevania that copied this game's design.

In addition to the story mode, there is a versus mode where you can play up to six players in a series of battle arenas. You will also have access to the game's entire cast of characters (at least 45), all of which feature their own attacks and combos. For many players, this will be the most exciting part and will become a fixture at parties. You bring the cerveza, the nachos and a stack of records. I'll bring the Saturn and Guardian Heroes. That's not a bad way to spend a Saturday night.
 

DT MEDIA

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Bokan to Ippatsu: Doronbo Kanpekiban (1997, Banpresto and Tatsunoko)

Bokan to Ippatsu: Doronbo Kanpekiban (translated as "Time Bokan: Doronbo Perfect Version) is a member of a videogame sub-genre known as "cute-em-ups," which were popular in the 1990s on home systems such as the PC Engine/Turbografx-16 and Super NES. If you have ever seen Konami's Parodious or Red Entertainment's Air Zonk, you'll have an idea of what to expect. These games are arcade shoot-em-ups that feature extremely colorful, cartoony graphics and a generally silly style that play out like a semi-parody of videogames.

Time Bokan is based on the 1977 Yatterman anime series from Tatsunoko in Japan, in which a bumbling villainous trio known as the Doronbo Gang are regularly thwarted by an assortment of comic book superheroes. Its tone is much closer to Hanna-Barbera cartoons than anything, and harkens back to a more innocent age of Japanese animation. This game puts you in the hands of the gang in their quest to defeat the Yatterman heroes and, well, shoot at a lot of cartoon pigs and robot contraptions. Before each stage, you are given a choice of zany vehicles that resemble Flintstone drag cars, camels, snails and birds, each with their own unique stats for firepower, mobility and shields. There's a fair variety between them; it's fun to play around to find a personal favorite, especially once you've collected a couple power-up icons that give you some impressive (and funny) weapons such as flying attack cats. Or are those supposed to be mice or bears? Whatever.

The action plays out in vertical-scrolling style that also pans sideways when you move. It also fills the entire screen, which is a very welcome change of pace from all the vertically-oriented shooters on Sega Saturn (you won't have to lie down on the couch to play "tate" mode this time). Each stage is quite varied in their environments, from tropical green valleys to arctic glaciers, underwater oceans to futuristic city highways. There are also many obstacles in your way that you can shoot, such as trees and park benches and all those goofy pigs. It probably makes sense to fans of the cartoon show.

Time Bokan: Doronbo is fairly easy to play, certainly when compared to fiendishly difficult shooters like The Game Paradise, Battle Garegga or Soukyugurentai. Expert gamers will probably breeze their way through to the end on a good afternoon, especially if they play two-player co-op mode. Most of the enemies are easily dispatched, and while the large bosses put up a fight, you can learn their patterns in short order. Personally, I find this to be a welcome change of pace. This game is aimed at a broader mainstream audience and not just diehard game fans who can "1CC" every arcade game in their sleep.

I really enjoy the warm color saturation and impressive animations in this game, as well as the extensive use of sprite scaling and rotation. Sega Saturn's 2D powers are given a fair but not overwhelming workout. The music is also very enjoyable with lots of bang-pop-zoom cartoon effects and lots of chatter from the Doronbo Gang as they throw bombs or get hit. Banpresto doesn't offer much that we haven't previously seen on PC Engine, but what is here is very polished and refined.

Players looking for a fun and lighthearted romp will enjoy Time Bokan: Doronbo very much. It has that pick-up-and-play quality that is perfect for casual settings and social hangouts. And it's very nice to find a quality 2D videogame for Saturn, especially one that doesn't belong to a long-running franchise. This title was also released on Sony Playstation in Japan, and by all accounts appears to be completely identical. Good news for everyone!
 
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Choro Q Park (1998, Nextech)

Choro Q Park is a charming little kart-style racing game that is based on those adorable little Penny Racer cars that were a fixture in my childhood. They were called "penny racers" because you could attach a penny to the trunk of the tiny cars and when you wind them up, they would spin around and zoom and do tricks. It was an easy gimmick but extremely popular with kids around the world. I know the kids here in the States would really have enjoyed playing this videogame adaptation.

It's very easy to look at this game as another copy of Super Mario Kart, with its cartoony visual designs, boxy vehicles and looping, winding track designs. Choro Q Park isn't on the same level as Nintendo's classic series, and doesn't really compete directly. Instead, it's perfectly happy to play in its own little sandbox. The game takes place on a large island that features a number of stops, including racing arenas, a shop to purchase more vehicles, a garage and paint shop to store and customize your cars, a daily weather report, and a test track where you must first earn your driving license. The goal is to win races where you can earn money and new cars and trucks. Dozens of vehicles are available, each with their own unique handling and performance stats.

That is the thrust of the game. You play to collect penny racers and race with friends. There are a large number of race tracks spread across multiple locations, but there is no circuit mode where you compete for trophies ala Mario Kart. What makes these races novel is that you can change racers at various points along a race track. You select which car to use at each checkpoint, and you must choose wisely depending on the terrain, whether you're racing on pavement or dirt, across straight paths or winding curves.

While driving, you can pick up power-up icons that either shoot a tire directly ahead or leave an oil slick directly behind. These are the only weapon items in the game, so you'll have to make them count. Winning races often depends on successfully using the tires and oil on your rivals, especially when racing against someone who's much faster than you. The computer-controlled vehicles can also fire on you, but with nowhere near the intensity or relentlessness of Mario Kart. The pacing is far more relaxed and casual, more of a Sunday drive than a white-knuckle dance with doom.

Western players have difficulty playing this game at the start, as all the menus are in Japanese. At the beginning, you begin with one car but also need to purchase a second from the shop. Once you have chosen a second vehicle, then you can visit the test track to earn your license. You will place your cars along the designated checkpoints and then race a couple laps to prove your worth. After a few moments of driving around corners, bridges and dirt roads, you will be awarded a license that allows you to compete at the first racing arena. A second license is also available for you to access the second arena, and the following courses must then be unlocked by winning all the previous races.

After you earn your licenses, Choro Q Park opens up and you'll discover the many courses and cars available to you. The track designs are very impressive and designed with many corners, curves, hills and branching pathways. I am reminded of Mario Kart 64 which is very similar in style (Donkey Kong's island course pops into my head as I write), although at a far more polished and competitive level of performance. I only wish this game were a little faster and more competitive, with a few more power-up items. A few more cars on the tracks would be very nice.

Racing fans will really enjoy playing this game. The visuals are highly polished by Saturn standards, colorful and detailed. The cars tilt in turns, kick out smoke clouds when burning rubber, flip and spin in the air when shot by tires. The environments are varied enough to keep you interested and there are an impressive number of courses to play (there's even a Rainbow Road course at the end, becuase of course, there has to be one). The music is bouncy and even features a couple bluesy tracks that stick in your head. A two-player split-screen mode is very welcome and should extend the game's replay value. And, of course, there are all those little cars and trucks to collect.

Choro Q Park was developed by Nextech, a contract studio that was founded in 1992 and purchased by Sega in 1997. They also acquired the software studio Gau Entertainment in 1994, who the creators of the excellent Ranger-X on Sega Genesis. Their contracted work includes Linkle Liver Story (a charming Legend of Zelda inspired game), Battle Arena Toshinden Remix and URA (two dreadful Playstation adaptations), and a number of Capcom ports including Resident Evil on Saturn and Resident Evil: Code Veronica on Dreamcast.
 
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Some very good games in the last page.

NiGHTS... I was going to say that something that frustrates me about Giant Bomb is they've decided that NiGHTS is a bad game and that Saturn owners only like it because they had nothing else to play. I can actually sympathise to a point, it's not a game that explains itself. Watching them play, they run around as the kids, running out of time and dying, they could really do with someone showing them how to play it as a chain score attack game. I remember it taking me a few goes to understand it, and I remember slating it to a mate before it clicked. I think it's why I prefer Christmas NiGHTS, because it's just short courses that can be easily repeated and learnt, in fact to unlock the presents you had to replay a lot


Guardian Heroes really should be on more platforms. When you think about some of the games that are released on everything nowadays, Guardian Heroes still plays well, can still look good, and would be great online


Whenever I list my top 20 games, or whatever, I tend to forget Twinkle Star Sprites, but I think it would be up there, just for some reason I always forget it. It did come out on Steam, although I've got it on Humble Bundle which means it never occurs to me to play it. It's a great game, like everyone else seemingly I was never any good at it, better than my friend who'd play it and that's all that matters really :D
 
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Fighters Megamix (1997, Sega AM2)

Question: Is Fighters Megamix the definitive Sega Saturn fighting game? Does it surpass the mighty Virtua Fighter 2? Let the debates begin.

Fighters Megamix is a perfect summary of everything I love about Sega: a bright and bold visual design, accessible gameplay that contains boundless depths, and a sense of humor that shows they never take themselves so seriously. They were always the renegades, the upstarts, the punks who crashed the party and spiked the punch. They were the risk-takers and casino gamblers whose debts eventually came to bury them alive. But what a wild crazy ride. Start another match, I'll order pizza.

Most Saturn fans are very familiar with this game, which became a fan favorite among casual and diehard players alike and enjoys cult status to this day. It was only released on one other platform, the doomed Game.com handheld, and has never reappeared on any future console. Whenever Sega asks the fans which of their classic titles should be revived, my first answer is nearly always, "Megamix. Bring back Megamix."

Fighters Megamix is a superb mashup of Virtua Fighter and Fighting Vipers that quickly morphs into a grand celebration of Sega AM2's greatest hits. Players begin by playing the characters from the two major series, and as they progress, the bonus characters are revealed and quickly crash the party, each one zanier and more ridiculous than the last, each one more fun and exciting. Have you ever been to one of those college house parties that ends with the cops busting up the place? You can barely find your way to the door, your ears are ringing from the house band making noise, you're hoping you don't get nabbed by the fuzz...all in all, a great time is had by all. This videogame has that same sense of electricity and fun.

In what other fighting game can you play as a race car, or a balloon animal, or a giant Mexican jumping bean in a mariachi outfit (and a bird under his hat)? Where else can you find a giant cartoon duck who throws bombs, or a comic book superhero who runs on batteries, or an arabian warrior with a sword? Where else can you play as a giant chunk of meat with cartoon hands and feet, or a giant palm tree? Who else would be crazy enough to do something like that? Nobody, that's who.

Does it matter at all that most of these bonus characters are "joke" characters, never to be taken seriously or played with any more seriousness than mashing buttons? Does it matter that this roster of 34 fighters is massively unbalanced, where any skilled Akira or Jacky player will just wipe the floor with everybody else? Does it matter that the Daytona car only has, like, four moves (and only one that's useful)? Of course it doesn't matter. You and your friends are having fun. You're also probably very drunk, so it's not like you can remember any complex moves, anyway. Sega is looking after you by not taxing your brain. This allows more room for beer, pizza and nachos in between bouts.

The bonus characters all hail from Sega AM2 hits, including Virtua Fighter Kids, Virtua Cop 2, Sonic the Fighters, Dynamite Dux, Rent-a-Hero and Daytona USA. This shows an impressive willingness to reach deep into the catalog. They even include a characters named Siba who was originally planned for the original Virtua Fighter but was cut from the roster at the last minute, as well as three originals. You can easily imagine who would appear in future installments, such as Shinobi, Streets of Rage, Alex Kidd or NiGHTS, and you're left dumbstruck that Sega never followed through. Perhaps if the Dreamcast was given more time, such a sequel would have arrived. What's holding them back today?

For more serious players, the Virtua Fighter and Fighting Vipers cast is where you'll spend the bulk of your time, as you settle the debate over which is the better fighting game. You can select "Virtua" and "Vipers" modes in the options menu, which enables the midair recoveries, breakable armor and power moves that can shatter the walls. I can switch back and forth, depending on my mood and who I want to play, and I am impressed at how smoothly everyone can adapt to the subtle differences between the two series.

Of course, the Virtua cast is equipped with nearly all the moves from Virtua Fighter 3, which was tearing up the arcades (in Japan, at least). Virtua Fighter 2 is praised as a masterwork of martial arts videogames, and rightly so, but there's no question that VF3 has the stronger maneuvers, attacks and defenses. Throws and reversals are standardized with Guard+Punch and Punch+Kick, respectively. Most basic attacks now include additional "canned" combos including double kicks. An evade button allows for more tactical freedom. Of course, Megamix doesn't quite equal the action and intensity of Virtua Fighter 3, but it captures the core of the experience, and freed from the elevated 3D stage designs (replaced with endless flat planes, ala Namco's Tekken), it becomes more accessible. If only the series were more popular and better understood in the States, perhaps this home version could have translated into greater success for its arcade cousin. But it was not to be.

Fighters Megamix is a visual marvel for Sega Saturn, using a more advanced version of the graphics engine used for Fighting Vipers. The fighters and arenas are presented in standard "240" resolution, but also includes extensive use of gouraud shading and realtime light sourcing. This allows for some highly impressive visuals, especially on sunset stages where fighters are illuminated in light and shadow. I like how Saturn renders lighting effects as seen in titles like Megamix, Burning Rangers, Quake and Baroque. The speed remains relentlessly furious, blazing at 60 frames per second with only a few hiccups on one or two stages (the US version was released after the Japanese version, and be slightly more refined).

Yes, it is true that the fighters sport a lower polygon count than in Virtua Fighter 2, which also ran in "480 high resolution" mode, and this difference becomes more noticeable on modern HDTV displays (as always, everything looks better on CRT), and as with Fighting Vipers, it appears this compromise was needed in order to enable the lighting and shading effects, which was a key battleground of the Fifth Generation. Sega needed to prove that they could compete against Sony Playstation and Nintendo 64, and this is reflected in the Megamix design. Personally, I would have preferred the clean, high-rez look that Sega is best known for (as seen in VF2), but as we old people like to say, that was the style at the time. It was the onion on our belts.

As we used to say in the '90s: whatever. Once you hold a controller in your hands, Megamix is pure bliss and a blazing tornado of fun. The complex, tactical gameplay is far deeper and more involving than any of its rivals and will keep you engaged more or less forever. It's highly satisfying to hear every crunch and crack as the punches, kicks and throws connect, and there's no substitute for a well-timed throw (Jeffry has one nasty throw where he scrapes his opponent's face against the cage). The music is suitably funky and bouncy, closer to Vipers trash-rock style than Virtua, and all of the bonus characters include music from their respective titles. It goes without saying that your first bars of the Daytona theme will leave you cheering.

Why should anybody care about Sega Saturn in the year 2018? Because Fighters Megamix is there, that's why. God Bless Sega.
 
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Great report on Megamix. I've never played it in spite of being a big fighting-game fan because I always thought it was a cheap cash-in to the various properties. I mean, you wouldn't take a fighting game with a Daytona car seriously, would you? That was my thinking, at least. Virtua Fighter, the various CAPCOM and SNK fighters, and Virtual On are of course must-haves for the Saturn but I never considered Fighters Megamix. Guess I'll have to add it to the wishlist...
 
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Great report on Megamix. I've never played it in spite of being a big fighting-game fan because I always thought it was a cheap cash-in to the various properties. I mean, you wouldn't take a fighting game with a Daytona car seriously, would you? That was my thinking, at least. Virtua Fighter, the various CAPCOM and SNK fighters, and Virtual On are of course must-haves for the Saturn but I never considered Fighters Megamix. Guess I'll have to add it to the wishlist...

Of course, nobody would take a fighting game with a Daytona race car seriously, and that's the whole point. These are videogames. They're meant to be fun and surreal and nonsensical. Heck, the whole computer industry was founded by 1960s acid heads, and most of those early videogames were their trip reports (hello, Yars' Revenge). You can also play Megamix "seriously" if you wanted, if you played in "Virtua" mode and stuck to the VF characters. The whole game is a fascinating experiment in mashing different games together to see what happens.

While VF2 is the more "serious" fighter (and still the definitive Saturn game in my eyes), Megamix is no less fun and is much easier for novice players to embrace. You should absolutely get a copy; if you do so, bear in mind that the US version is more expensive than the JP release ($30 vs $10), but the tutorial mode has English text and the graphics engine may be slightly more refined. When it comes to Saturn games, you'll usually want to get the later release as Sega always rushed software titles out the door too early. US Daytona, JP Tomb Raider, that sort of thing.
 

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Virtua Cop (1995, Sega AM2)

Virtua Cop is the third of Sega's blockbuster trilogy that revitalized the Sega Saturn in Christmas 1995, giving the troubled system a second chance at life. Such an idea must sound strange, considering the machine was launched in May that year, but Sega found themselves reeling from Sony Playstation's successful launch in September, as well as a solid year of negative press and foul rumors. Saturn was widely seen as a mistake, if not an outright failure, before it even arrived on store shelves. They needed a miracle to win back the public. Here is one of those three miracles.

AM2 was Sega's marquee arcade game division, responsible for the company's most beloved classics including Outrun, Space Harrier, Afterburner, Virtua Racing, Virtua Fighter and Daytona USA. Virtua Cop was released to arcades in 1994 and became another smash success. The Saturn conversion began the following year, utilizing the studio's internally-developed Saturn Graphics Library to take full advantage of the hardware. The result is a practically flawless translation that far exceeded anybody's expectations.

Shooting games have been a staple of arcades and amusement parks for decades, even before the arrival of the computer age. I remember seeing several very large and very old target-practice games at the Minnesota State Fair as a child, such as Keeney Air Raider, a gun game created in 1940 where you shoot down enemy aircraft. With the arrival of videogames, we saw many classic video target games such as Duck Hunt, Operation Wolf and Terminator 2. The technology was becoming ever more advanced, but the basic gameplay had never changed. A target moves along a screen, you shoot it and score points.

Sega's Virtua Cop represents the first real evolution of this genre. Its 3D polygon graphics bring you into an immersive, interactive world, where you traverse waterfront docks, warehouses, construction zones, and modern office buildings. You walk down passageways, pass through gates, hide behind large crates, attempt to dodge moving vehicles, climb stairs, explore garages and offices. Your opponents are also rendered in 3D polygons and they pop out from every conceivable angle, running in front of you, hiding behind metal barrels, sniping from rooftops, jumping off the back of trucks, climbing down escalators, darting through doors. Many will also attack at close range with axes or hurl grenades from a distance.

Shots on criminals are context-sensitive, meaning that they will respond to where they were hit, whether it be an arm, leg, chest of head. Bonus points are awarded for a "justice shot" that knocks the guns from your opponents' hands (which I presume means they're arrested and not killed). In addition, you can strike with a three-shot combo that raises your score multiplier and awards bonus points. This feature is balanced by the low number of bullets in your gun, as you must shoot off-screen to reload. Do you play carefully and aim for single-kill or justice shots, or do you reach for the high score with three-shot combos?

There is a fair amount of interactivity in this world, including exploding red barrels that can wipe out a group of criminals at once, windows that can be shattered and wooden crates that hide power-up weapons such as machine guns, shotguns and the Eastwood-approved Magnum (you will lose these if you get shot). In one scene, you can collapse a metal observation tower by detonating a red barrel. It doesn't achieve anything, but it looks super cool and adds to the realism. It all adds to a very convincing sense of fighting through a fully realized virtual world, and it was absolutely sensational to experience when it was new.

Heck, it remains exciting today. Rare's programmers famously cited Virtua Cop as a primary influence on Goldeneye, and it's easy to understand, especially when you're blasting your way through the computer office, black-suited agents hiding behind the desks, camouflaged soldiers running past the front gates. You can understand why first-person shooters took over this genre and became so massively successful. They're all just VC without the rails.

As always, there are civilians and hostages who keep wandering into the middle of the firefight; you're penalized for shooting them by "accident," but let's be honest. There are a lot of times where these idiots are just asking to be shot. Are you sure there isn't a cheat code that rewards me for killing civilians? Check up on that.

One especially nice feature are the timing circles that surround enemies, which serves as a warning when baddies will open fire. As you progress through the game's three stages, enemies will jump out at greater angles and distances, giving you less time to react to threats. Not all criminals will be marked with the circle, which means they won't shoot you, but you can still shoot them for extra points.

Virtua Cop is a sensational roller coaster thrill ride. The action blazes by at a relentless rush, and the enemy syndicate puts up a challenging fight. It's probably the best early demonstration of Saturn's 3D powers, as the environments are fairly immersive and complex. I suspect that some slight-of-hand trickery is at play, where some backdrops that appear to be polygons are in fact 2D bitmaps. But the illusions are so convincing that I cannot discover the secret to these tricks. I would love to learn just how Sega AM2 squeezed a $15,000 arcade machine into a $300 home console, and one that couldn't "doo three-dee," no less. No Saturn library is complete without this classic. Fantastic, marvelous job. Everybody gets a free cookie.


P.S. One final note about the controls. Virtua Cop is meant to be played with Sega's Stunner, but light guns will only work on CRT displays. If you wish to play on a modern HDTV, you will be forced to use a joypad or a mouse. As compromises go, it's less than ideal but does work after some practice. That said, you're going to want to find a picture tube television to play this classic as Sega and God intended.
 

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Virtua Fighter 2 (1995, Sega AM2)

Virtua Fighter 2 is the greatest videogame ever made for Sega Saturn. It is the system's greatest critical and commercial success, especially in Japan, where Sega was most successful, competing evenly against Sony for several years and even beating Nintendo. The arcade game was an enormous success that defined a standard in 3D martial arts games, and is probably Sega's most successful franchise in its home country. This is their Led Zeppelin IV.

In the West, the Virtua Fighter series was less successful and never achieved more than cult status. Gamers were more accustomed to Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat, which were far easier for beginners and casual players. Here's the dirty little secret: most kids play fighting games by mashing buttons. If you mash buttons enough, the character on screen does something cool and interesting, and if you win and you'll win. If you mash buttons and nothing interesting happens, then the game sucks and play something else. Tekken 3 was a huge hit because you could play Eddie Gordo and perform his amazing gymnastics routine by just mashing the kick buttons. Why do you think wrestling videogames have always been so popular? Because all you do is smash the controller with one hand while holding pizza with the other.

The Virtua Fighter series actively punishes button mashers. Instead, it introduces a new world of martial arts theory, including movement, timing, offense and defense. It has a steep learning curve. The game should probably come packaged with a textbook for studying movelists, frame data and flow charts. At its core, the game is rock-paper-scissors played at five times normal speed. Block beats Attack. Attack beats Throw. Throw beats Block. Added to this mix is something called "recovery time," which is the time it takes your fighter to recover from a move. Now the eternal question: what will happen if my attack is blocked? Can my opponent attack or throw me during my recovery phase?

We are talking about fractions of a second in game time, and tournament players will obsess over frame rate charts to know just what attacks to use at which times, and when to never use those super-flashy moves that leave you gasping for air if missed. One of the most crucial lessons of Virtua Fighter is to learn how to punish mistakes. Here, reckless attacks will get you killed. You need to know how to read your opponent, predict their next move and beat them to the next punch. Once you can get inside their head and disrupt their thinking, you've won the match.

True mastery lies not only in knowing your abilities, but the abilities of your opponent as well. In this regard, VF2 is closer to a martial arts simulation than anything. It's a contest between competing schools: Chinese kung fu, jeet kun do, drunken boxing, praying mantis, American wrestling, the dreaded "five-point fist." Most people will choose one fighter as their main character and then study them endlessly. Sarah Bryant is my character. Her attacks are balanced between high, mid and low regions, she has fast strikes, and there are several moves that launch an opponent into the air, leading to "rolled" or improvised float combos.

Advanced techniques include guard cancels (the ability to "cancel" a canned combo); exploiting minor and major counters (attacking during an opponent's recovery phase or during movement, respectively); ring positioning and knowing where fighters will move if a basic throw is escaped (an innovation introduced in VF2); double-dashing for faster movement; and even observing feet position, either "closed" or "open" stance, which can result in additional combo hits under the right conditions. Players must also factor in the weight of the fighters, which affects how high they will float when knocked down, and the possibility of an "on the bounce" attack at the moment they hit the floor (a technique that was greatly expanded in Virtua Fighter 3).

Finally, a ProTip for all players: never use the long "floaty" jumps. Those will get you killed. Always tap the joystick or joypad, never hold. Tappa-tappa-tappa ("I got yer tappa-tappa-tappa"). That said, there are some impressive combo videos that feature the floaty jumps if you are willing to study them.

Have I mentioned there's a lot of study in this game?

Thankfully, you can learn the ropes with a little practice, and nearly all characters have an assortment of "canned" combo attacks, usually variants of punch-punch-kick. Lau Chan is notorious for his relentless punch rushes. Jacky Bryant has some great spinning attacks that are effective. I always abuse Sarah's elbow-knee combo whenever possible. If you prefer powerful throws, Jeffry and Wolf are your go-to guys. If you prefer speed and defense, Pai Chan is best. If you just want to confuse everybody, Shun Di's drunken boxing will deliver the goods.

The expert character in the game is Akira Yuki, who only has a two-punch canned combo and a series of powerful strikes that all require complex joystick movements, back-back-forward-punch+kick, that sort of thing. His most devastating attack is known as the "Stun Palm of Doom," three powerful strikes that hit an opponent at all angles and drains nearly their entire life bar. It requires three movements to be performed in under a second. If you see it in action, it is a sight of beauty. If it happens to you in a match, just hand the other player your lunch money. You're screwed.

Virtua Fighter 2 is a spectacular showcase for Sega Saturn. It was the first title to utilize the system's famous 704x480 high resolution mode, higher than VGA resolution and double the resolution of all its contemporaries. Combined with a rock-solid 60 frames per second, a sensational use of color and set design, and superb animation, and the result is a visual masterpiece. The 3D character models are brilliantly conceived, clean and sharp. AM2 uses a little slight-of-hand trickery with the backgrounds, using 2D bitmaps via the Saturn's VDP2 chip. It's a fascinating compromise in an era where all home videogames must make compromises with limited technology (the polygon era probably should have been pushed back to the Sixth Generation). As in all great art, the trick lies in knowing what to cut out. Music lies in the spaces between the notes.

I had recently read that VF2 is the first videogame to incorporate motion capture animation, and I think that was one key reason for it's astonishing character animation. Fighters move with a graceful beauty that was inconceivable with 2D hand-drawn or digitized sprites; they sway, stumble, spin, punch and kick with an amazing lifelike fluidity. Nothing like this had ever been seen before. For comparison's sake, go watch Battle Arena Toshinden on Playstation, which was released three months prior in September 1995. The difference between the two titles is astonishing. Such were the rapid advances of the Fifth Generation, where today's hot star became tomorrow's has-been.

Playing in 2018, I am amazed at how clean and crisp VF2 looks on a Sony HDTV with composite cables, at how rich and detailed the spectacular synth-rock music sounds through the speakers, how clean and clear the voice samples echo in the room. Sega AM2 exceeded their best expectations. If anything, they were a little too good, setting a standard that Sega Saturn could barely reach again. I think Dead or Alive does a better job with its backgrounds in faking a 3D environment, but this game has stronger animation and art design. And it has that legendary gameplay, almost limitless depth. My head tells me that Virtua Fighter 3 was the series' peak, but my heart tells me it's really Virtua Fighter 2. Cue the Bonham drums.

(Update 6/3: Added a screenshot taken on a 1990s Sony Trinitron CRT, Saturn w/composite cables.)
 
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Panzer Dragoon (1995, Team Andromeda)

When I think of Panzer Dragoon, one word comes to mind: atmosphere. It presents a world that is vast, teeming with lost civilizations and buried histories and countless life forms that struggle for survival. Its visual and art design owes much to French comics artist Moebius as well as Frank Herbert's Dune sagas and endlessly hints at boundless tales and adventures that lie just beyond the next horizon, cave or forest. You feel as though you are experiencing an epic adventure and only wish to see more, more, more.

Sega's Team Andromeda created a masterwork of production design, an extremely ambitious and expensive undertaking for 1995. I always believed that the five-minute CG movie that opens the game is Oscar-worthy and comparable to any movie studio in the world (only Pixar's Toy Story, released that same year, was more sophisticated advanced). When I first saw the opening at a Toys 'R Us, I was overwhelmed and immediately scrambled the money to purchase a Sega Saturn. This movie describes a post-apocalyptic world where humans struggle to survive in a world populated by mutated creatures of tissue and bone. Feuding empires unearth lost ancient technologies in their quest for greater power, culminating in gigantic engineered flying beings, dragons.

You are introduced to the main character, a tribal nomad who becomes separated from his hunting party, attacked by a giant stoney insect, then rescued by a blue dragon. This dragon is then pursued by a larger and more powerful dragon. The two continue their fight in the air, where the first dragon's pilot is fatally wounded. Landing on the surface of a cliff, the pilot communicates to you telepathically, imploring you to complete his quest to reach a mysterious tower before his rival. You take your place on the back of the blue dragon and take pursuit.

Panzer Dragoon is an adventure imbued with startling alien beauty, gorgeous architectures, surreal landscapes, and some of the greatest orchestral music ever to grace a videogame. In the opening stage, you fly your dragon across rolling ocean waves, stone arches and flooded city ruins, navigating past giant teethed lilipads and flying monsters of all shapes and sizes. The violins are melodic and soothing as you soar across the water, and you feel a sense of calm as you explore this strange world. Then the strings swell to a climax as you enter an abandoned castle, its walls and ceilings crumbling into the waves. When you experience this the first time, you are quite moved. That sense of wonder only grows in the following stages, which take you to vast deserts, underground cavern mazes, dense tropical forests and coastal cities.

At its core, this is an arcade shoot-em-up, a direct descendant of Sega's classic Space Harrier. The innovation is that you can view a full 360 degrees while riding your dragon, and enemies attack from all directions and angles, sometimes quite suddenly. You will rely upon your radar screen for guidance, and use the shoulder buttons on your controller to change viewing angles quickly. You are equipped with a pulse rifle, while your dragon is equipped with homing lasers that can lock on multiple targets at once, unleashing a torrent of destruction at once. Skilled players will learn to use both weapons and move very quickly to neutralize threats before you become overwhelmed from all sides.

You begin by repelling native creatures, but also must battle the armored forces of the empire, who come in small planes and large airships that look like giant stone dirigibles. There are also larger threats such as giant sand worms (whose outer shells can be blown apart) and the stone insects seen in the opening movie. And the greatest enemy of all is the rival dragon, of whom you know nothing beyond the killing of the dragon's pilot. All are on a quest to reach the ancient tower, which will bestow great powers upon its master. In a later cut-scene, the insect army attacks the imperial forces, in tandem with the dark dragon. All is not as it seems here; there are rival factions and betrayals afoot, a theme that would be greatly expanded in Panzer Dragoon Saga.

Panzer Dragoon includes eight stages (including a hidden bonus level) but is extremely challenging. The bosses are especially tenacious and difficult, hurling countless projectiles at you while darting about at all directions. The Saturn joypad is very comfortable and responsive, but the ideal controller is the Sega Mission Stick, a large analog joystick that is compatible with a large number of racing and flying games.

The visual and art design is absolutely magnificent, unique and innovative and unlike anything ever seen before. The new age of 3D graphics promised nothing less than the reinvention of videogames, and Panzer Dragoon delivers. The rolling ocean waves are as amazing today as they were in '95, as well as the vast landscapes of desert and forest. There's a remarkable sense of variety, imagination, scale. This world feels lived in, and you wish that you could jump off the rails and explore in any direction. Again, this is a promise that Team Andromeda delivers miraculously in Panzer Dragoon Saga.

The direct sequel, Panzer Dragoon Zwei, is even more visually accomplished and ambitious, offering new innovations in visuals and gameplay. Its music, however, is much more conventional synth-based music, lacking the wonderful orchestrated score of the original. And Saga is the trilogy's undisputed masterpiece, arguably Sega Saturn's finest hour and the last videogame RPG that truly mattered. The entire series is magnificent. But there's no denying the power and impact of the original. Here is a glorious example of what makes the Saturn so unique and so great.
 

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Dragon Force (1996, J-Force, Sega and Working Designs)

Whenever I play Dragon Force, I am easily overwhelmed by the scale of this world and the challenge in leading armies against eight kingdoms composed of dozens of generals, thousands of soldiers and a dozen military classes, all while managing domestic politics, rogue elements, random invasions and desertions. I sometimes feel like the dog wearing a neck tie while sitting in front of a computer: "I have no idea what I'm doing."

For fans of role-playing, strategy and war games, Dragon Force is just about the greatest thing that has ever happened. It plays out like a mashup of Tolkein novels, anime movies and Avalon Hill military simulations, with a dash of the board game Risk for flavor. There is enough depth to keep players happy for years and years. That it took 20 years for the sequel to receive a proper English translation is fitting, because 20 years is just about how long it will take for you to finally wear yourself out on the original.

In this adventure, you play as one of the eight feudal rulers in the realm of Legendra, who must conquer the lands and unite the realm to defeat an ancient and powerful evil force that threatens the world. You choose your kingdom, select your generals and begin your conquest of the rival armies.

The battles are the heart of the game, a spectacular display of 2D sprite graphics where vast armies meet, running, attacking and defending in real time. As the general, you choose the tactical formations and give orders to your troops. Depending on the conditions, you may choose a defensive formation and let the enemy come to you, or you may order your soldiers to disperse and hide from projectile attacks. You may order your armies to advance in rows or all at once, or you may order an all-out melee against the opposing general. If the battle is being lost, you may order a full retreat and return to fight another day.

All of these armies move around on their own, and I'm reminded of those old electric football games with the large metallic stadium that you'd plug into the wall, and watch the little football players shake and roll around. In addition to choosing tactical formations, your generals can use magic attacks against the rival generals (and sometimes their armies as well). If both armies are eliminated, the contest will be decided by a duel. The battle is ended when one general's life bar is depleted. The loser will either be captured or killed.

Meanwhile, back at home, you begin each "turn" by tending to domestic politics. This includes consulting your generals for advice, trying to recruit captured generals to your side, fortifying castles or searching the kingdom for lost items. Based on the number of battles you've won, you can hand out medals to your generals, which will increase the size of their armies. As always, you have to manage your resources carefully as your kingdom grows, to ensure your armies are growing and healthy, and to ensure that your castles are well protected from invaders.

Dragon Force is blessed with an epic storyline involving dozens of major and minor characters. Each of the eight kingdoms follows its own story thread and each ruler has their own motivations and goals. Many cut-scenes occur during the weekly politics sessions as well as before and after battles, and often capturing rivals will create new plot twists, such as rescuing a city from foul invaders. Because of this, it is worth playing through the game with each kingdom, expanding the replay value exponentially. It certainly helps that the kingdoms are wildly diverse in armies and powers. Some are best for beginning players, while others are more suited to experts.

Military classes include soldiers, monks, magi, archers, horses, samurai, harpies and even dragons. Each class has strengths and weaknesses against other classes as well as the local terrain, be it valleys, forests, deserts of castles. Because of this, you must be mindful of where to move your armies, when to attack the rival kingdoms and when to defend your territory. All the while, the other seven kingdoms are constantly on the move, and you can watch their actions on the world map in real time. And have I mentioned that the evil Madruck will send armies and assassins against you when you least expect it? Are you feeling overwhelmed yet? It's okay. There's a lot to digest and learn, and it will take a long while to unite all eight kingdoms.

I am greatly impressed at the ambition of this game. The battles become larger and larger, with as many as 200 sprite characters on screen at once, and it's an amazing sight to behold. We are reminded how Saturn was first conceived as a 2D-based console, a direct successor to the Genesis, and Dragon Force is the perfect example of that alternate timeline. It's a thrill to see large numbers of soldiers, samurai, monks and harpies battling one another, and there is a genuine feeling of accomplishment when your depleted armies overcome overwhelming odds, thanks to a combination of tactics, terrain, magic attacks and dumb luck. I am also greatly impressed by the many story threads involving the large cast of characters. It will probably take players a few complete playthroughs before all of these stories can be told.

Sega Saturn is home to a vast library of Strategy-RPGs, only a few of which were released in the West. Some excellent examples from Japan include Terra Phantastica, Wachenroeder, Soldnerschild, Solo Crisis, Tactics Ogre, Shin Megami Tensei, Super Robot Wars F, Langrisser and Sakura Taisen. In the US, we were blessed with Shining Force 3 and Iron Storm, and some of the Koei simulations. Dragon Force stands up with the best of them, and is easily the most polished and refined. One of the system's very best titles.
 
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Showed my appreciation over the past week by converting my Hori VLX to a Sega Saturn exclusive stick now.

I made an aluminium block off plate for the turbo panel and cut down an old HSS-0154 twin stick PCB to fit in an old Radio Shack (R.I.P.) project box and then finished with a chrome SS decal from eBay.


 
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Tempest 2000 (1996, Llamasoft and High Voltage Software)

I remember the exact moment when Llamasoft's Tempest 2000 was dropped on the Atari Jaguar in 1994. The 64-bit system was treated with indifference and open sneering from most videogame players, largely due to lackluster launch titles and little interest from developers. Even a famously drug-fueled review of the pack-in game Cybermorph by Diehard Gamefan's Dave Halvorsen failed to change minds. To hear it at the time, Atari's final console adventure was dead in the water on day one. In a flash of genius, programming legend Jeff "Yak" Minter turned all that around, and for a brief, shining moment, Jaguar became a true contender.

The original Tempest Atari arcade game was created by Dave Theurer in 1981 and became a beloved hit and early pioneer in 3D computer graphics. It is a contest of speed and reflexes as you guide an abstract C-shaped spaceship across a series of abstract grids to shoot an array of abstract geometric shapes before they destroy you. The vector display graphics are very clean and sharp, which is in keeping with similar arcade games of the era such as Battlezone, Asteroids, Omega Race and Space Duel.

Tempest 2000 isn't just a "modern" update of a classic videogame. It's a psychedelic techno masterpiece of action, adrenaline and suspense that reminds you why you love videogames. Here is Exhibit A for why you "don't find a better hobby," to quote the normals. Minter takes everything great about the original and pumps up the adrenaline tenfold. The abstract designs are modernized with impressive color shading and an amazing array of particle effects that build and build as players progress. As your spaceship collects power-up rings, the screen flashes with congratulatory messages of love and encouragement and 1-ups. Mysterious voices excitedly chant, "Yes, yes, yes!" A thumping rave soundtrack pumps away with merry abandon. One almost expects to hear the voice of Terence McKenna whispering through the cosmos, offering insights into culture and language and self-transforming elf machines.

As a classic shoot-em-up, your reflexes are constantly tested as you must glide the edges of the many-shaped space webs and shoot the geometric foes as they crawl their way to the top. Your basic gun can be upgraded to a Technicolor pulse rifle, and you can also earn "electric death" smart bombs, the ability to jump above the webs, and are even joined by a cube-shaped A.I. droid who joins you in battle. At the end of each stage, your vessel slides down the web to travel the galaxy for the next challenge. Be careful not to hit any spikes on your way out.

Early stages are simple and easy but the difficulty and intensity rise and rise with each destination. Before long, you will find yourself overwhelmed by enemy aliens from all angles, including the Red X, Spikes, Pulsars and the dreaded Demonic Head of Plastic Mediocrity and Doom. Okay, that's not its real name, but it ought to be. Everything in this game should be given a trippy 1960s Austin Powers name, don't you think? Eventually, after acquiring a sufficient number of warp tokens, the player is taken to one of several extremely trippy bonus stages which serve as a pause in the action.

Tempest 2000 was ported to the Sega Saturn in 1996, courtesy of software developers High Voltage Software, who is probably best known for creating The Conduit on Nintendo Wii in 2009. This translation is nearly identical to the Atari Jaguar cartridge, save for the omission of the third bonus stage and some resampled digital speech samples. The terrific rave music and blistering speed is still fully intact, and thank your trippy stars for that.

This game arrived at a time when "retro gaming" was still a very new concept, and software developers were searching with ways to preserve the industry's early glory days. Yak understood precisely how to augment the classic formula (geometric abstraction, arcade gameplay) with modern values (power-ups, bonus stages, wild visuals). The result is a definitive interpretation of a true classic, and one of the greatest arcade videogames ever created.
 
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Showed my appreciation over the past week by converting my Hori VLX to a Sega Saturn exclusive stick now.

I made an aluminium block off plate for the turbo panel and cut down an old HSS-0154 twin stick PCB to fit in an old Radio Shack (R.I.P.) project box and then finished with a chrome SS decal from eBay.
Looks great RedSquare. Geez, that is such a good stick. Did you also keep the same guts (Hayabusa Hori parts) or did you swap them out for something else?

Curious why you went with the full Saturn pad-hack conversion instead of doing an MC Cthulu board or undamnded decoder or something. Not that I'm judging. I have plenty of pad-hacks in my arsenal, too.
 
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Thank you sir. This VLX is from before they came with Hori parts. BTW, it's currently rocking Hori parts now.

My reasoning for not using a multi-capable PCB is because I really felt the Saturn deserved a premium and exclusive stick:p Also, the PCB used was from a pad hack I had laying around and wanted to put to good use.
 
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Thank you sir. This VLX is from before they came with Hori parts. BTW, it's currently rocking Hori parts now.

My reasoning for not using a multi-capable PCB is because I really felt the Saturn deserved a premium and exclusive stick:p Also, the PCB used was from a pad hack I had laying around and wanted to put to good use.
Ah, so it had the Kuro buttons. Nice. I have two of those myself. Probably the last arcade sticks I'll need to own.

Totally understand wanting to do a dedicated Saturn build. I ended up doing an undamned USB decoder wired up to a Saturn pad to convert my sticks over.
 
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I have a Hori Fighting Stick SS, and is there any easy/cheap and effective way to reduce the deadzone a bit?
The cheapest and easiest way to reduce deadzone is by getting a larger actuator for your stick. This is a hollow, hardened plastic piece that sits between the shaft and the actual joystick switches. A larger actuator will increase the amount of space the center of the shaft takes up or reduces the amount of space between the shaft and the switches, however you want to look at it. I have enlarged actuators on both of my Hori Hayabusas.

Another option that helps but doesn't specifically reduce deadzone is a stiffer spring. 1-pound tension is the standard. 2-pound springs are what I prefer. They cause the stick to snap back to center with more force. Stronger springs also help you get out of the habit of riding the gate, if you have that problem.

In terms of the best fit, seems like an enlarged actuator for a Seimitsu LS-56 should do the trick with a bit of modification (guessing you'd have to file it down). I am basing that off this blog post:
http://hibachicandy.tumblr.com/post/70204101194/the-stock-joystick-in-the-hori-fighting-stick-ss

Good luck!
 
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DoDonPachi (1997, CAVE)

"Shinu Ga Yoi"
("Dying Is Good")


DoDonPachi's motto -- "dying is good" -- not only encapsulates the punishment you'll endure when trying to master its levels and mechanics, but it also teaches the player a fundamental lesson of the shmup genre: dying is a good thing if you can learn from it. Moreso than any other genre, shmups force the player to play and replay and replay each level, over and over, repeating the same sections dozens of times. It is a tedium that most gamers do not find entertaining. On paper, shmups don't seem like they offer much in the way of content. After all, you can typically credit-feed a shmup and beat the final boss within 1 hour. However, when you aim your sights on 1-crediting the game or even going for a top score in your country, the genre reveals a deep cistern of challenge. In this context, if there was ever a pantheon of "shmup greats", a Mount Olympus of shmup dieties (if you will) that holds sway over the genre, DoDonPachi would certainly be one of the top Divine Powers. Its influence is felt far and wide.

When I encountered this game in my youth, I was mesmerized by the weaving bullet patterns, wailing guitar-rock soundtrack, and gritty science-fiction aesthetic. Sure, I'd tackled plenty of sci-fi shmups in the past, but DoDonPachi (and what a weird name!) was so...Japanese: over-the-top, handcrafted, demanding, elegant. I didn't own a Saturn or a PS1, so I had no access to the game other than the local arcade. Ah, what fleeting pleasures! The arcades in my area either vanished or converted to prize-counter machines and with them so did my only means of playing DoDonPachi. The Saturn port is still one of the best ways to play the game (if you have the right hardware, which I'll get to later).

DoDonPachi offers you three ships (A, B, or C) and two weapon boosts (Laser or Shot) for a total of six configurations (which are often annotated in playthrough videos as A-L, C-S, A-S, and so forth). Three buttons and a D-pad control the action of moving, shooting, and setting off a Bomb. Y'know, normal shmup controls. One "quirk" is that holding down the shot button (default: A) will slow the ship and focus your laser into a never-goes-out-of-style mega-laser-beam. Bog-standard nowadays, but definitely an important innovation when this game came out in 1997.

Loop 1 has six stages but to see the true ending (something that not many gamers manage to do) you need to meet certain conditions during the first loop and then beat the seven stages of Loop 2. This is the only way to face off against the true final boss. I've never seen it myself. After 100 hours (easily; I'm likely underestimating my time) of playing DoDonPachi, I'm not anywhere close to reaching that goal. Some might find that a bother. I find it a far-off goal that I am slowly working toward. As mentioned, many gamers lost their appreciation for this type of difficulty and DoDonPachi won't likely change your opinion. Take it for what it is.




You can think of this game as the result of a rivarly, a bet, a frenetic desire to do better than the other guy. That "other guy" was Battle Garegga, another influential shmup. DoDonPachi's chief programmer, Tsuneki Ikeda, insisted that "we won't lose in terms of bullets!". DoDonPachi is passion in a bottle. It is one of the most ambitious games of the 90s, a marriage between heavy-metal coolness and arcade refinement. Not a second moment is wasted during the ~25-minute first loop. The enemies are all beautiful, fat sprites that churn out thick streams of flourescent bullets. Mid-bosses and bosses often have multiple points of destruction and numerous attack patterns. The levels each have a distinctive theme yet never distract from the action.

And the bullets. Bullets everywhere. Sure, there are now shmups with denser clouds of bullets, but DoDonPachi is no slouch even 21 years later.

I've mentioned the music. It's a key piece of the game's intensity and never grates on the players. The sound-effects are equally satisfying: exploding enemies go CHUNK CHUNK, your rapid-fire shot puts an A-10 Warthog's BRRRRT to shame, all the pick-ups ding and swoosh when you pick them up. Sound-effects and music might come off as the least important parts of a game -- especially a shmup -- but when you're repeating levels for dozens of hours, it really helps to not be annoyed by the finer details.

Even for the spectacle of it all, DoDonPachi is hard to match. It came out in that awkward era at the end of 2D dominance. 3D shmups like RayStorm, G-Darius, Einhander, and R-Type Delta were hitting the market but DoDonPachi stuck to its 2D roots. The resulting graphics speak for themselves and require no pomp or explanation. It remains one of the best-looking all-2D games, in my opinion.

Start to finish, DoDonPachi is a phenomenal shmup. It may be short, but it's pure entertainment carved onto a plastic disc.

But what about the rest of this "depth" I keep mentioning? Well, that's beyond the scope of this review. What you'll find if you happen to 1-credit the game and you're looking for more to do is that the game keeps score. In case you're unfamiliar, "Score" is an archaic method of tracking how well you performed at a game, and it is alive and well in the shmup genre. To score with the best players in the world, you need to memorize chains between waves of enemies, pick up Bee emblems with just the right timing, not die, not use your bombs, get the second loop, not die again, not use your bombs again, and clear the whole game in one go. Yeah, I told you it was too much to get into.

Your aim may not be to master the game and put up a world record. That's okay, too. The scoring system is still worth learning -- if for no other reason -- to provide two extra Lives during your playthrough (earned at 3,000,000 and 8,000,000 for the Saturn version). Players should learn the basics of mico- and macro-dodging the bullet patterns (also called tap-dodging or streaming) as well as misleading aimed shots. By the middle of the first stage, bullets will cover more than half of the screen, significantly reducing the number of "safe" spots that you can flee to. Eventually, you will have to learn to delicately weave in between bullets. It's tough, but the skill will translate nicely to other shmups, too.




DoDonPachi's depth still matters to the rest of us unwashed peasants. The depth is there, waiting for you. You can learn about DoDonPachi's deeper systems, you can patiently memorize your routes, you can pick up various tricks...it's all there for you to exploit. But unlike a loot crate or a cheat code, you have to earn it. The game rewards proficiency and nothing else. Does this cram the game with value? I think so. You might or might not think so. Buy the game anyway. It's awesome.

The Saturn version has a few additional modes and options beyond what you'd find in arcades. The true value is the fact that you can enable a low-res Tate mode. Meaning, it will display in 240p on a sideways CRT. The extra screen space and the 240p scan makes a tremendous positive difference to the experience, both in terms of its visual beauty and its playability. This is a Japan-only release, so you'll either need a Japanese Saturn or an Action Replay cart (or other various means, such as hard-modding your Saturn).

The most commonly-cited snobbery of shmup players is our insistence on not just a "proper" arcade stick but also a good display. This either means a low-latency computer monitor or a CRT monitor. Years ago, I never thought I'd be obsessing over the difference between 240p and 480i and hunting down good displays, but here I am. Unfortunately, the snobs are right on this one. Moreso than any other videogame genre (with fighting games and FPSs coming in next on the list), a shmup player will benefit from a good hardware setup that includes a responsive controller (typically a stick or a keyboard) and a responsive TV. Not necessarily a big TV or a 4k TV or an HDR TV...a responsive TV. Input lag will become a bigger enemy that any bullet pattern, so if you don't want that issue getting between you and a 1-credit clear, you'll need to be aware of the problem of input lag. This barrier to entry will turn away some players, but getting a good controller and a good display is the best way to play DoDonPachi.

My Saturn copy of DoDonPachi is one of my most prized games. That's not due to its aftermarket value as it is still safely below $100. I prize it because I know this game will last me a lifetime. If you want to enjoy DoDonPachi on your Saturn, get a copy now and worry about the display you'll play it on later. It still looks and plays great through an upscaler or on a non-Tate CRT. That said, it's worth (safely, cautiously) turning a CRT on its side to play it in Tate mode.
 
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Oh DT MEDIA,

Wanted to say good job on the Dragon Force write-up. It's sad how ignored the title is while many contemporary RPGs on PS1 and N64 are still widely praised. Heck, it even got overshadowed by Panzer Dragoon Saga on the same console in spite of DF aging better and being an overall superior game (sacrilege, I know).

Those huge armies of sprites... still looks good to this day. I'd love a compilation port/remaster and a translation of the second one (Japan only I think?).

Both games straddle a narrow path between a lighter SRPG that's less simulation-y with story progression (Fire Emblem, Disgaea, FFTactics) to a full-scale Koei-style kingdom simulation games. I think DF captures the best elements of both styles of strategy game.
 
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Here are some new screenshots of Virtua Fighter 2 running on a Sony Trinitron CRT that I just picked up for free. I snapped these photos on my iPad, but I later switched to my iPhone 7, which has a much faster shutter speed and seems to work nicely. I also took a few closeup shots that show the scanlines, since that's something that retro gamers today really love. As you can see, Sony's Trinitron picture was a step above their competitors, allowing for images that are immaculately crisp and clean. Once those Sony patents ran out in the late 1990s, everybody immediately jumped on board. Oh, and those vertical lines are reflections of the window blinds in the background, pay no mind.

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Now for the quick backstory. I recently began a new day job as a temp sales position for the Chicago Tribune (I cling to the fantastical idea that I could get a paid writing job if I just showed somebody my books). Last Friday, they completed their move away from the iconic Tribune Tower (built in 1925) and moved to new offices at the Prudential building down the street. During the move, the employees cleaned out all their junk, and I scored a number of cool freebies...including a 13" Sony Trinitron CRT from 1994. Yay! The TV has very slight burn-in at the top-right corner (always press the "display" button on your CRT remote, kids), but otherwise is in perfect condition.

I spent much of today taking new screenshots from a number of Sega Saturn games. It's a bit trickier to snap photos of a CRT, as there is a light source blaring at you, and you may have to deal with reflected light in the background. I'll need a little more practice on these, and almost certainly a proper digital camera, but the camera on my iPhone 7 works very well. It's clearly better suited than the camera on my iPad, which is what I used to take screenshots from my 42" Sony Bravia HDTV.

One thing that immediately impresses me is the rich colors that just pop from the Trinitron. Everything is much bolder and richer, with a clear "warm" bias. In addition, the picture quality for "SD" videogames is much more clean, clear and crisp than on the HDTV. The Bravia images are very close, closer than one would expect, and it's a testament to the advances in modern TV tech. Older HDTV sets were absolutely merciless on retro games. That said, all my classic game systems appear a little soft and smudgy on the Bravia set. This is partially because I use many filters and tricks to smooth out the picture and avoid the over-pixelation that comes as a result of upscaling a 240/480 screen image. I really don't like the mega-pixels, because that's not how the classic videogames really looked, and many of today's kids are unaware of this.

Another thing that surprised me is how quickly I readjusted to playing on a smaller screen. Most of us who played videogames in the 1980s and 1990s had 13-inch TVs, and most households never had anything bigger than 19-inch. But you're normally playing within two feet of the screen, so you're fine. I really do enjoy playing on the larger Bravia screen, but the Trinitron works just as nicely, and when you add in the crisper display and sharper color palette, it's clearly the better choice.

Another thing about these screenshots: I'm using composite cables right now, and it appears clean when you sit a couple feet away, but the screenshots show a lot of the "dot effect" which is an issue with composite. This Trinitron doesn't have s-video output, so I'll look for an RF cable to see how that looks. ProTip: RF cables on classic CRT displays looks great, and almost always better than composite. HDTV is another matter entirely, of course.
 
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Sorry, the screenshots of Worldwide Soccer 97 are not cooperating, so I'll just have to cut this post down, sorry. Rest assured that I will try to snap some good photos for the official WWS 97/98 essay review. You can see photos of WWS 98 in the post directly below.
 
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Sega Worldwide Soccer 97 & 98 (1996, 1997, Sega CS1)

Sega's CS1 team were the brains behind the World Series Baseball series on Saturn, and so it is only fitting that they are also responsible for the equally amazing Worldwide Soccer series. Back in the year 2001, after my Sega Dreamcast was suddenly (and suspiciously) stolen, I picked up a used Saturn for myself and my housemates. Worldwide Soccer 97 and 98 were the most played games by far. This pair of sports games are among my absolute favorites for this system and remains highly playable all these years later.

Worldwide Soccer (aka Victory Goal) was a standout title for the Saturn's launch in 1995, thanks to its liquid-fast gameplay, brilliantly executed 3D graphics and a "Sega Rock" soundtrack in that Van Halen style. Many critics dismissed it, however, as a mere "arcade" sports game that failed to reach the standard set by Electronic Arts' FIFA series. Sega took the criticisms to heart, rolled up their sleeves and returned the next year with a sequel that substantially improved everything across the board.

The gameplay remains very fast and fluid, but your athletes have a whole host of offensive and defensive moves (including a number of maneuvers not shown in the US instruction manual...because reasons). Your players bob and weave with the ball in impressive fashion, as defenders attempt to shove or tackle the ball away. You have a number of different kicks, short-range, centering, backward passes, triangle passing among teammates, bicycle kicks and headers. In addition, you can add spin to your kicks, causing them to curve radically and surprise the other team.

The pacing is intense and highly competitive, and feels like a midway point between "arcade" and "simulation." It never becomes bogged down in complex maneuvers and midfield dribbling, yet also never devolves into each team taking turns sprinting their man down the field. Knowledge of your player roster and formations is key, but you won't need to become obsessed over stats and substitutions, that is, unless you're like me and wind up earning a dozen yellow cards. Whoops. I keep forgetting that I'm not playing NHL 94.

All great sports videogames deliver excitement and drama, which Worldwide Soccer 97 delivers in spades. Shots on goal can bounce off the bars of the net or fly overhead. Players can be knocked down by shots on goal (NHL Hockey also did the same, which is always a hoot). Freak shots from long distance can squeak by the goalie at the last second. And brutal slide tackles can result in the referees handing down a yellow or red card. Notice how the ref reaches into his pocket and waits a moment before revealing his card. That is dramatic tension, kids, especially when the match is on the line.

Worldwide Soccer 97 is a visual marvel for Sega Saturn, featuring polygon players and arenas (along with VDP2 bitmap planes for the ground). This was at a time when 32-bit sports games continued to use sprites for the players, such as World Series Baseball and NFL Gameday, and the move to full polygon graphics raised the stakes in the great poker match. Sega wanted to prove that they could beat Sony Playstation on 3D graphics, and in this instance, they succeeded. The character animation is extremely smooth and natural, and look absolutely magnificent in motion. You can even see some amazing shadows below the athletes during evening matches. Matches are played in three different stadiums, each very uniquely designed, and you can spot your country's flags waving in the stands as the fans sing and honk their horns in support.

Play-by-play commentary is offered by professional sports broadcaster Gary Bloom, who offers a very polished and heartfelt performance. His lines read very much like you hear on television, more of a conversational style than the quick one-liners you'd find in arcade games at the time. This, again, is quite the achievement for 1996 and always left me with a big smile on my face. The crowd chants are especially nice, and it appears that each nation has its own unique cheers.

In 1997, Sega released Worldwide Soccer 98, and it's another smashing game. The number of changes to this addition are slight, however, and fans will be happy to own both versions. The most notable additions are club teams (England, France and Spain, based on which language option you choose), two additional stadiums and a second audio commentator, Jack Charlton, who sounds like he's completely drunk off his ass and about to pass out. Three times as much recorded dialog appears in this sequel and it's just as impressive. A handful of teams have been replaced, such as Chile for Bolivia and Czech Republic for Turkey. There is one or two new player animations, including a short hop when you try to tackle your opponent. The computer AI is much smarter, and you can't fake out the goalie as easily as you could in WWS 97. I think the head shots and bicycle kicks are easier to perform this time, as well, but your mileage may vary.

Fans of FIFA and Konami's soccer games will point out that Sega's series lacks official teams or players, and the team roster is fairly small in comparison. And the gameplay may still be a bit too "arcadey" for the sim freaks. Whatever. Worldwide Soccer 97 & 98 are two of the most entertaining and engaging sports videogames of the Fifth Generation and an absolute must for Saturn fans. The final game in the series, World Cup '98 France: Road to Win, was released only in Japan to coincide with the World Cup. It's essentially WWS 98 with World Cup teams and Japanese audio play-by-play, and retains the classic gameplay.

Sega's CS1 studio was closed down after 1998, which likely explains why Worldwide Soccer and World Series Baseball never continued on the Dreamcast (the names were revived but created by Western studios). Why would Sega do such a crazy thing? What exactly were they drinking, I wonder? Turpentine? There's nothing else to do, I suppose, other than fire up the ole' Saturn for another quick match in the rain. Or two. Best three out of five. You don't need to work tomorrow. Sleep is for the week. Game on.
 
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DT Media, regarding video quality for the Saturn you have RF which is the worst, composite which is meh, S-video which is better, and finally RGB which is great.

Using RGB with the Saturn on a high-end Sony PVM is a sublime experience. Even if you were to get a Sony or a Toshiba CRT with component inputs for cheap via Craigslist, you could use an RGB-to-component transcoder and the results would be fantastic as well.
 

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DT Media, regarding video quality for the Saturn you have RF which is the worst, composite which is meh, S-video which is better, and finally RGB which is great.

Using RGB with the Saturn on a high-end Sony PVM is a sublime experience. Even if you were to get a Sony or a Toshiba CRT with component inputs for cheap via Craigslist, you could use an RGB-to-component transcoder and the results would be fantastic as well.

That sounds like a really good idea, thanks. Right now, I'm using Composite for Saturn and Dreamcast, and Component for Wii on the Bravia (composite on the Trinitron). The Atari 2600, NES and Genesis all use RF cables. The 13" Trinitron only has Coaxial and two composite outputs. As always, these things are subject to change.

My Saturn screenshots in this thread are mostly via composite connected to the Bravia HDTV. There were a few posts where I shared old photos of Saturn games running on an old '90s RCA TV with RF. My previous CRT television was a 27" Sony Trinitron (with a 24" Sony Wega flat-screen CRT before that), and I shared one Virtua Fighter 2 screenshot from that (I shared some screenshots of Streets of Rage 2 on my Twitter page some time ago).

Years ago, I had a Sony Wega HD-CRT, a massive beast that weighed over 200 pounds and featured a 36" square screen. The picture quality (1080i) was astonishing, and still beats nearly every digital HDTV display I've seen (aside from the beloved Pioneer Kuro plasma screens, which were fantastic). I used component (Wii) and s-video (Saturn) on that set and was very, very happy. But the massive weight and performance issues (those Sonys have a bad chip that shuts the TV down and is a monstrous pain to fix) just killed the experience for me. Also, you couldn't play lightguns on those beasts. Ugh.
 
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Here's one final round of Sony Trinitron screenshots for now. This is Asuka 120% Burning Festival LTD, one of my favorite go-to Saturn games and probably my favorite 2D fighter on the system. Yes, I love the 4MB Capcom games, but I'm terrible at them without a joystick. Asuka is much easier for joypads and has enough frenetic action to keep me hooked. I snapped these photos on my iPhone 7, which turned out to be a really good camera. It's certainly much faster, which enabled me to capture some good action poses without getting blurry pictures.

As you can see, this Trinitron has the curved display, pure analog. This particular TV was built in September 1994 and is part of their successful '90s lineup. At the turn of the century, Sony introduced the Wega series, which were digital CRT televisions. The display was a flat-screen and the picture quality was a little bit sharper; component output was included, which was nice, but there is also a slight pixelation present when playing classic videogames. I also think the analog Trinitrons have the best black levels and color saturation, but that's also because those colors are bleeding a little. Retro gamers should be happy with either brand and hold onto them for dear life. Sony TVs will always be the best.

Seriously, somebody needs to throw money at Fill-In-Cafe and bring Asuka back to modern systems. Just put it on Switch and I'll be perfectly happy.
 

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Strikers 1945 (1996, Psikyo and Atlus for Sega Saturn)

Strikers 1945 was almost a curio when it was released on Saturn in 1996, nearly a "retro" throwback at a time when the shoot-em-up genre was radically mutating and reinventing itself to compete in the Polygon Era. It doesn't attempt to reinvent the wheel like Radiant Silvergun or Batsugun, nor does it overwhelm the senses like Dodonpachi or Battle Garegga. There are no spectacular showpiece moments like the planetfall stage in Soukyugurentai. It only offers an extremely vivid, solid and challenging arcade videogame and nothing more.

I realize that I am playing Pearl Jam's 2000 Binaural album as I write this and appreciate the parallels at play, veterans at the top of their game who are seemingly dismissed by snobbish critics and a clueless public always on the hunt for the next sugar fix of the latest pop trend. In their narrow-minded world, you either hop on the newest bandwagon or become dismissed as yesterday's news.

The punch line to this sick joke, of course, is that twenty years later, the pop bandwagon has tumbled down a mountainside, crashed and burned with all the bubblegum stars inside. Goodbye, frat-rock and boy bands. Goodbye, sloppy 3D polygons and ugly graphics. Hello to those grizzled, toughened veterans who ignored the popular crowd and stuck to their guns. There is a lesson in here for you to learn, kids.

Strikers 1945 is a vertical-scrolling shooter that fits perfectly in the world of Toaplan and Capcom and Data East, the world of the early '90s. You pilot one of many international fighter craft and set out to defeat armies of planes, tanks and giant anime robots. Because, of course, that's what everybody was doing back in 1945. Didn't you catch the program on the History Channel, the one with that "Aliens" guy with the wild hair? This is all based on a true story, don'tcha know.

Each aircraft has its own unique weapons, including rapid-fire and charged attacks as well as a "smart bomb. You collect power-up icons but never acquire any new weapons, which not only adds to the replay value (as you find the right airplane for your tastes), but also adds a strategic value to two-player games. If your friend chooses a plane with spread shots, maybe you should pick one that shoots sideways to balance things out. The early stages are fairly easygoing, but by the fifth stage, the enemy blazes from all directions in hailstorms of bullets and missiles. You're going to find yourself overwhelmed very quickly if you're not careful.

I enjoy the military-themed shooters that studios like Toaplan and SNK used to deliver by the bucketload. Strikers 1945 is swift and nimble on its feet, its stages are fairly short and you'll reach the end-stage bosses while the beefier polygon games are still loading, and the later stages are challenging enough to keep you returning for another ride. It's best enjoyed with family and friends, especially if they're not shoot-em-up masters who can 1CC everything in sight.

Psikyo were the developers behind this game, which spawned several sequels and a number of hit shooters that appeared on the Saturn. They're dependable, reliable, honest. They always deliver the goods while never overreaching their grasp. Their programmers and designers know how to build the ideal thrill ride and keep the kids entertained. And if the kids are off chasing the next Pet Rock, whose fault is that?
 
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Nicely done with your coverage on Asuka 120% and Strikers 1945. I've never played Asuka but will probably add it to the collection (someday) because it seems like a solid fighter. Can't have enough 2D fighters, can you?

Out of curiosity, have you played Strikers 1945 II or Strikers 1999? I like the first Strikers, but the second and third games show a significant increase in quality for the series. 1999 is arcade-only, unfortunately, but 1945 II got a decent port on Saturn that's worth checking out if you can.
 
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Nicely done with your coverage on Asuka 120% and Strikers 1945. I've never played Asuka but will probably add it to the collection (someday) because it seems like a solid fighter. Can't have enough 2D fighters, can you?

Out of curiosity, have you played Strikers 1945 II or Strikers 1999? I like the first Strikers, but the second and third games show a significant increase in quality for the series. 1999 is arcade-only, unfortunately, but 1945 II got a decent port on Saturn that's worth checking out if you can.

I do have Strikers 1945 II in my Saturn collection and I've been meaning to give it a spin. I think the last time I played that game was a decade ago, so the memories are hazy (certainly doesn't help that Saturn has so many great shoot-em-ups). I did play all the arcade games on MAME years ago, but I haven't touched any emulators since I got an iMac (Apple sucks for emulators). One of these years, I'll have to get Boot Camp so I can run Windows for all the retro videogames. What I really ought to do is finally learn how to put all the emulators on my Nintendo Wii.

In any case, I do enjoy the Psikyo shooters. They belong to the 16-bit era, before everything went bullet-hell crazy, and I really enjoy the simplicity and polish of Strikers 1945. Fortunately, the original is still very affordable, so fans can grab a retail copy easily.
 
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I do have Strikers 1945 II in my Saturn collection and I've been meaning to give it a spin. I think the last time I played that game was a decade ago, so the memories are hazy (certainly doesn't help that Saturn has so many great shoot-em-ups). I did play all the arcade games on MAME years ago, but I haven't touched any emulators since I got an iMac (Apple sucks for emulators). One of these years, I'll have to get Boot Camp so I can run Windows for all the retro videogames. What I really ought to do is finally learn how to put all the emulators on my Nintendo Wii.

In any case, I do enjoy the Psikyo shooters. They belong to the 16-bit era, before everything went bullet-hell crazy, and I really enjoy the simplicity and polish of Strikers 1945. Fortunately, the original is still very affordable, so fans can grab a retail copy easily.
It's easy to turn your Wii into an emulator box, thankfully.
 
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X-Men Vs Street Fighter (1997, Capcom)

Now we come to one of the key reasons why Sega Saturn retains its cult following to this day: Capcom's legendary arcade-perfect port of their arcade hit X-Men Vs Street Fighter. If you love 2D fighting videogames, it doesn't get much better than this. Welcome to the Promised Land, my friends.

At the close of the 16-bit era, gamers were feeling somewhat burned out by too many Street Fighter 2 sequels and an arcade scene flooded with bad fighting games. So Capcom doubled down and gambled hard on the future, reinventing their formula with Street Fighter Alpha and Darkstalkers and X-Men: Children of the Atom. They veered away from the "realistic" graphics of the 16-bit era in favor of a sleeker, four-color cartoon design, emphasizing fluid cel animation and painterly art design. The gameplay likewise evolved, adding layers of complexity to the time-tested formula. After finding themselves stuck in a rut, the studio found themselves rejuvenated with each new installment.

Embracing Marvel Comics was a masterstroke for Capcom and really allowed them to indulge their comic book leanings that were only hinted at in classics like Strider and Ghouls 'N Ghosts. Their only rivals in those days would probably be Konami's X-Men arcade, which was a pretty bog-standard side-scrolling beat-em-up that allowed for six players to fight together. It made more sense to add these characters to the tournament martial arts genre, which succeeded at bringing these great comic book characters to life.

X-Men Vs Street Fighter marks the first pairing of Capcom franchises. The "Versus" series would continue with several highly successful sequels that continually raised the bar, adding more characters from the Marvel Universe, Capcom's roster, even the anime characters of Tatsunoko Productions. All are thrilling, exciting and endlessly entertaining, yet do any of them match the simplicity and immediate appeal of the original? Many fans have argued for years that this title is the finest entry in Capcom's all-star series.

Essentially, this game is a mashup of X-Men: Children of the Atom and Street Fighter Alpha, meaning that the game delivers exactly as promised. You battle with the usual assortment of normal and special attacks, with a couple super attacks to unleash when the proper meter is filled. The stages are extra vertical, which enables you the opportunity to kick opponents high into the air for massive Dragon Ball-inspired beatdowns. And the best feature are the tag teams, which allow you to switch fighters on the fly, adding them to combos, or even including them in devastating attacks that might induce seizures or melt your television.

The roster is fairly large and varied yet never feels overly packed. You won't have to deal with multiple Shotokan fighters or clones like all those Mortal Kombat ninja. If anything, the cast feels sparse, as though a few more stars could be added to the party, and this is part of the game's charm. It hasn't yet become overwhelmed with itself or its own importance. What's the use in a fighting game with dozens of characters, especially when at least one half is just a carbon copy of the other? Much better to have a unique lineup where every player counts. There is only one Wolverine, only one Juggernaut, only one Chun Li.

X-Men Vs Street Fighter is a 2D masterpiece for Sega Saturn, thanks to the heralded 4MB RAM cartridge that is required to play (you can use the Pro Action Replay, which is the preferred choice for today's gamers). Thanks to this upgrade, this home translation is a perfect copy of the arcade, featuring all of the extremely fluid animations, attacks and maneuvers. Loading times are virtually nonexistent, usually less than three seconds. Music is rich and thumping through your speakers, with clean and clear voice samples from your favorite fighters as well as the announcer. I really love the detailed comic book design of these worlds with its bold colors and striking pencil lines. Many stages will feature changes during the matches, such as a power plant that is consumed by fire, or a fight on a city street that crashes into the sewers.

I cannot fathom why Capcom has not reissued this game on modern platforms. Surely there would be interest in a "Versus" compilation disc or digital release. Sega Saturn is the beneficiary of this policy, with the definitive home version (the Sony Playstation version is an embarrassment by comparison). If you want your hands on this fighting classic, there's only one place to go. Start saving your quarters.
 
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So, here's the deal:

X-Men Vs Street Fighter is Capcom's best Vs game. Yeah, it's a smaller roster, but the game is so well-balanced that it is endlessly playable. Plus, there are no throwaway characters. Sure, I love Dr. Doom, Cap'n MERICA, and Spidey . But there's no way I'm settling for Blackheart, Shuma, and Omega Red (who effing cares about these villains? No one even cared in the 90s, idiots) when it means I loose access to Rogue, Storm, Magneto, Sabretooth, Juggernaut, and Gambit. Even on the Street Fighter side, X-Men vs Street Fighter is superior: it has Cammy and Nash while M v SF has Dan (lol) and Sakura.

MvC might be flashier, but if my buddies and I wanna sit down and have a fair fight, we play X-Men Vs SF. The sprites are butter-smooth and emotive, plus you get destructible maps! C'mon, falling through the floor will never not be totally rad. Children of the Atom, Marvel Super Heroes, and Marvel vs Street Fighter are all fun in their own way but ultimately fall short.

Looking forward to your write-up.
 
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Magical Drop III (Data East; 1997)

The arcades were a brutal environment in which to release a new videogame. Arcade games had to be flashy enough to attract that first quarter, challenging enough to earn money for the arcade proprietor (otherwise he wouldn't want to buy/rent the cabinet or kit), and engaging enough to keep the player dropping quarters. Magical Drop III launched during the decline of the arcades. Competition between CAPCOM, SNK, Konami, Taito, and other arcade veterans was red-hot as they fought over a diminishing market. By the time Magical Drop III launched for the Neo Geo MVS, the days "Quarter munching" games were decidedly over: the market simply did not tolerate those design flaws anymore. Instead, arcade games released during this little slice of time had razor-sharp gameplay honed from 20 years of arcade experience. Some of the best shmups, fighting games, and puzzle games of all time came out during this era.

Borne from this environment of fierce competition, Magical Drop III stands the test of time. The gameplay and responsive controls are simple to grasp: grab up to 5 same-colored orbs from the vertical play field and shoot them back up to make matches of 3 or more orbs. Any connected orbs will pop and potentially start a combo. Popping orbs will send more orbs to your opponent's field. You win if you can overwhelm your opponent with more orbs than they can clear. Or, you win if you clear 200 orb-matches (displayed on a counter between the playing fields) before they do. Novices will typically be defeated by better players about 10 - 15 seconds into the match and I'm not exaggerating on the brief playtime. Matches are fast, blindingly fast. The Saturn port captures this intensity without a hitch and also refines the core experience with some welcome tweaks. Since it's inexpensive to import, Magical Drop III is a worthy addition to any Saturn fan's library.

Three Single-player modes pad out the Saturn port, though the meat of the game is experienced when you're playing head-to-head against a human opponent. If you're learning or in the mood for some practice, there's enough content to keep you occupied between multiplayer matches. 'Adventure Mode' places you on a Mario Party-esque playing field where you and CPU-controlled opponents progress on the board toward 'The Empress', completing missions and battles along the way. Don't expect a lengthy story or a ton of unlockables. It's little more than a glorified Arcade mode.

Speaking of which, the traditional Arcade Mode in this version is inconspicuously labeled 'VS CPU'. You choose between Easy (4 stages; easy enemies), Standard (8 stages; the equivalent of a normal Arcade playthrough) and Difficult (8 stages; much more difficult) and fight against the roster of selectable characters. It's a good way to practice the mechanics and see how you fare against the variety of enemies.

For a puzzle game, the character selection matters quite a lot more than you would expect. The selected character determines how your opponent's field gets pushed down. In other words, the character you select is a purely offensive choice. Characters do not have additional defenses or tricks when it comes to clearing your own field. This can make certain matchups imbalanced (like Fool vs anybody else) but for the most part it only matters to experienced players.

The final single-player mode is called 'Puzzle Mode'. You survive as long as you can against a scrolling board with fixed patterns, clearing as many orbs as you can. It's pretty good for practicing your speed and accuracy.




Single-player is nice, but multiplayer 'VS MODE' against a human opponent is where Magical Drop III comes alive. There's a special sort of satisfaction when you crush your friend in 10 seconds flat and see the stunned look on their face. I can think of no puzzle game quite as fast as Magical Drop III. The speed of play rivals a fighting game, yet the simplicity opens up the game to just about anyone. It's just matching three orbs, right? What could be so hard?

It's not that this game is "hard" in terms of complicated mechanics or devious block-stacking combos (it's not). What makes it hard is the speed. Against skilled human opponents or more difficult CPUs, you will die over and over again unless you can manage to play the game at a minimum speed. Otherwise, you'll get overwhelmed too quickly.

An uncommon feature is the counter-stop: after each trio of orbs is popped, you have a brief window of time to rack up another set of matching orbs to keep the combo going. Orbs that scroll up and hit other matching orbs will also keep the combo going. Often, I will pop a group of orbs and -- in that split-second gap -- I then shoot the next set on top of the line of popping orbs. They'll slide up and add to the combo while I'm already moving to another part of my field to pop yet another set of orbs. Using the third button, you can add more orbs to your playing field at any time. It is usually better to "stack" your own field voluntarily and to clear it yourself than to wait for your opponent to send orbs your way. Players of Panel de Pon/Tetris Attack will feel right at home with the rhythm of popping orbs, frantically lining up more combos during the counter-stop, and manually adding more to the "stack" to keep the combo going. You can make combos in the more traditional way by carefully lining up colors, popping the lynchpin, and watching the combo take place. That sort of hands-off approach is a normal part of Puyo Puyo, Columns, and most other combo-based puzzle games. But in Magical Drop III, relying on that method is too slow at higher levels of competition. The combo system is far more hands-on, allowing you to rack up matching orbs mid-combo, stacking your field with more orbs, scrambling to grab more orbs, popping them, adding to the combo in those all-to-brief moments of counter-stop. Meanwhile, your opponent is frantically trying to do the same to you, throwing more orbs your way, messing up your rhythm, trying their hardest to either overwhelm you with orbs or reach that 200 orb-match limit before you do.

There's a physical precision and speed requirement to higher levels of play. Whether you're fast on the D-pad, the keyboard, or an arcade stick, you need to get fast and build endurance to play this game at higher competitive levels. This might be a turn-off for some, but if you've ever spent hours in a fighting game's training mode or perhaps practiced tap-dodging in your favorite shmup, the high skill ceiling in Magical Drop III will entice you to improve your combos and your raw speed. It's addictive in a way that many modern games are not.

At a certain point, I can only describe a puzzle game so much. The proof is in the playing. Magical Drop III's draw is tightly intertwined with the fast speed, so no amount of words can adequately convey how the game feels to play. You'll have to either get a better idea by watching gameplay footage or by playing the game yourself. Thankfully, it is available on several different platforms.

Graphics are bright and charming on the Saturn, and I've never noticed slowdown or other performance issues. Most other puzzle games have characters, too, but Magical Drop puts them front and center of your playing field. The huge sprites will laugh, wince, grit their teeth, and display a wide range of animations for all 18 of the characters. Certainly, the main draw of a puzzle game is not its graphics, but the sprite animations add a great deal of personality to the game as a whole, as you can see in the gif below. Sound design and music are functional but not particularly mind-blowing. While it's not a weak spot, I suppose Sound is one area where the game won't win any awards. One notable exception: I do like the escalating chime as you rack up a bigger and bigger combo. You'll come to crave the high notes of that chime when facing down a foe. It means a much bigger combo is headed their way.



For a single-player excursion, Magical Drop III is good. For a multiplayer game, Magical Drop III is a must-own. The gameplay is popular with veteran gamers and non-gamers alike. If you enjoy competitive puzzle games but you haven't given Magical Drop a try, please take a look at the Saturn version and consider picking it up.
 
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Here are some newly captured photos of the always excellent (and massively underrated) Burning Rangers on the 13" Trinitron. I calibrated the TV using the service manual and the images just pop with color and clarity. Sony made the best televisions in the world. It's quite a thrill to play classic videogames in their original format.

As always, it's very difficult to capture CRT images on camera. You need a camera with a stand, manual shutter and aperture controls, and a very dark room. These screenshots are just quick and sloppy, captured on iPad with the best effort to find the right balance between color, light and detail.

I really do wish Sega's current bosses would wake up and realize there are more titles in their back catalog than Sonic and Yakuza. Sonic Team should have reissued Burning Rangers years ago. It certainly should have been brought to Dreamcast, if only there were more time. But you can enjoy it on Saturn and be amazed at how far they push the system's hardware. It's always such a rush when everything in sight explodes in fire and flame and the floors collapse and the lights blow out. And the ingenious creativity is something to marvel. Today's videogame industry doesn't have a tenth the imagination of '90s Sega. Everything was better in the '90s. Right?
 

DT MEDIA

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Magical Drop III (Data East; 1997)

The arcades were a brutal environment in which to release a new videogame. Arcade games had to be flashy enough to attract that first quarter, challenging enough to earn money for the arcade proprietor (otherwise he wouldn't want to buy/rent the cabinet or kit), and engaging enough to keep the player dropping quarters. Magical Drop III launched during the decline of the arcades. Competition between CAPCOM, SNK, Konami, Taito, and other arcade veterans was red-hot as they fought over a diminishing market. By the time Magical Drop III launched for the Neo Geo MVS, the days "Quarter munching" games were decidedly over: the market simply did not tolerate those design flaws anymore. Instead, arcade games released during this little slice of time had razor-sharp gameplay honed from 20 years of arcade experience. Some of the best shmups, fighting games, and puzzle games of all time came out during this era.

Borne from this environment of fierce competition, Magical Drop III stands the test of time. The gameplay and responsive controls are simple to grasp: grab up to 5 same-colored orbs from the vertical play field and shoot them back up to make matches of 3 or more orbs. Any connected orbs will pop and potentially start a combo. Popping orbs will send more orbs to your opponent's field. You win if you can overwhelm your opponent with more orbs than they can clear. Or, you win if you clear 200 orb-matches (displayed on a counter between the playing fields) before they do. Novices will typically be defeated by better players about 10 - 15 seconds into the match and I'm not exaggerating on the brief playtime. Matches are fast, blindingly fast. The Saturn port captures this intensity without a hitch and also refines the core experience with some welcome tweaks. Since it's inexpensive to import, Magical Drop III is a worthy addition to any Saturn fan's library.

Three Single-player modes pad out the Saturn port, though the meat of the game is experienced when you're playing head-to-head against a human opponent. If you're learning or in the mood for some practice, there's enough content to keep you occupied between multiplayer matches. 'Adventure Mode' places you on a Mario Party-esque playing field where you and CPU-controlled opponents progress on the board toward 'The Empress', completing missions and battles along the way. Don't expect a lengthy story or a ton of unlockables. It's little more than a glorified Arcade mode.

Speaking of which, the traditional Arcade Mode in this version is inconspicuously labeled 'VS CPU'. You choose between Easy (4 stages; easy enemies), Standard (8 stages; the equivalent of a normal Arcade playthrough) and Difficult (8 stages; much more difficult) and fight against the roster of selectable characters. It's a good way to practice the mechanics and see how you fare against the variety of enemies.

For a puzzle game, the character selection matters quite a lot more than you would expect. The selected character determines how your opponent's field gets pushed down. In other words, the character you select is a purely offensive choice. Characters do not have additional defenses or tricks when it comes to clearing your own field. This can make certain matchups imbalanced (like Fool vs anybody else) but for the most part it only matters to experienced players.

The final single-player mode is called 'Puzzle Mode'. You survive as long as you can against a scrolling board with fixed patterns, clearing as many orbs as you can. It's pretty good for practicing your speed and accuracy.




Single-player is nice, but multiplayer 'VS MODE' against a human opponent is where Magical Drop III comes alive. There's a special sort of satisfaction when you crush your friend in 10 seconds flat and see the stunned look on their face. I can think of no puzzle game quite as fast as Magical Drop III. The speed of play rivals a fighting game, yet the simplicity opens up the game to just about anyone. It's just matching three orbs, right? What could be so hard?

It's not that this game is "hard" in terms of complicated mechanics or devious block-stacking combos (it's not). What makes it hard is the speed. Against skilled human opponents or more difficult CPUs, you will die over and over again unless you can manage to play the game at a minimum speed. Otherwise, you'll get overwhelmed too quickly.

An uncommon feature is the counter-stop: after each trio of orbs is popped, you have a brief window of time to rack up another set of matching orbs to keep the combo going. Orbs that scroll up and hit other matching orbs will also keep the combo going. Often, I will pop a group of orbs and -- in that split-second gap -- I then shoot the next set on top of the line of popping orbs. They'll slide up and add to the combo while I'm already moving to another part of my field to pop yet another set of orbs. Using the third button, you can add more orbs to your playing field at any time. It is usually better to "stack" your own field voluntarily and to clear it yourself than to wait for your opponent to send orbs your way. Players of Panel de Pon/Tetris Attack will feel right at home with the rhythm of popping orbs, frantically lining up more combos during the counter-stop, and manually adding more to the "stack" to keep the combo going. You can make combos in the more traditional way by carefully lining up colors, popping the lynchpin, and watching the combo take place. That sort of hands-off approach is a normal part of Puyo Puyo, Columns, and most other combo-based puzzle games. But in Magical Drop III, relying on that method is too slow at higher levels of competition. The combo system is far more hands-on, allowing you to rack up matching orbs mid-combo, stacking your field with more orbs, scrambling to grab more orbs, popping them, adding to the combo in those all-to-brief moments of counter-stop. Meanwhile, your opponent is frantically trying to do the same to you, throwing more orbs your way, messing up your rhythm, trying their hardest to either overwhelm you with orbs or reach that 200 orb-match limit before you do.

There's a physical precision and speed requirement to higher levels of play. Whether you're fast on the D-pad, the keyboard, or an arcade stick, you need to get fast and build endurance to play this game at higher competitive levels. This might be a turn-off for some, but if you've ever spent hours in a fighting game's training mode or perhaps practiced tap-dodging in your favorite shmup, the high skill ceiling in Magical Drop III will entice you to improve your combos and your raw speed. It's addictive in a way that many modern games are not.

At a certain point, I can only describe a puzzle game so much. The proof is in the playing. Magical Drop III's draw is tightly intertwined with the fast speed, so no amount of words can adequately convey how the game feels to play. You'll have to either get a better idea by watching gameplay footage or by playing the game yourself. Thankfully, it is available on several different platforms.

Graphics are bright and charming on the Saturn, and I've never noticed slowdown or other performance issues. Most other puzzle games have characters, too, but Magical Drop puts them front and center of your playing field. The huge sprites will laugh, wince, grit their teeth, and display a wide range of animations for all 18 of the characters. Certainly, the main draw of a puzzle game is not its graphics, but the sprite animations add a great deal of personality to the game as a whole, as you can see in the gif below. Sound design and music are functional but not particularly mind-blowing. While it's not a weak spot, I suppose Sound is one area where the game won't win any awards. One notable exception: I do like the escalating chime as you rack up a bigger and bigger combo. You'll come to crave the high notes of that chime when facing down a foe. It means a much bigger combo is headed their way.



For a single-player excursion, Magical Drop III is good. For a multiplayer game, Magical Drop III is a must-own. The gameplay is popular with veteran gamers and non-gamers alike. If you enjoy competitive puzzle games but you haven't given Magical Drop a try, please take a look at the Saturn version and consider picking it up.

This is a really fantastic review, kudos. It's great to learn the subtleties of puzzle games like this, especially when there are so many available on the Saturn. The counter stop tips will be very helpful for me. I've always enjoyed Magical Drop 3 as one of the genre's standout titles. I can't wait to read your next Saturn essay.

Oh, btw, I recently added review essays for Worldwide Soccer 97/98, Strikers 1945 and X-Men Vs Street Fighter in the posts above. I wanted to conserve space on the forum and not pile on too much clutter, so be sure to check them out.
 
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This is a really fantastic review, kudos. It's great to learn the subtleties of puzzle games like this, especially when there are so many available on the Saturn. The counter stop tips will be very helpful for me. I've always enjoyed Magical Drop 3 as one of the genre's standout titles. I can't wait to read your next Saturn essay.
Thanks! Yeah, once you learn how to abuse the counter-stop that's where the game opens up. Magical Drop III is comfortably one of my Top 3 puzzle games of all time. It's a very good game.

Oh, btw, I recently added review essays for Worldwide Soccer 97/98, Strikers 1945 and X-Men Vs Street Fighter in the posts above. I wanted to conserve space on the forum and not pile on too much clutter, so be sure to check them out.
I'm always on the hunt for good SEGA sports games but it's a genre that I'm still unfamiliar with. Thanks for the Worldwide Soccer write-up, 'cause I'll likely end up picking up a copy.
 
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Hebereke's Popoitto (Sunsoft; 1995)

Do you like Dr. Mario? Then you'll like Hebereke's Popoitto. This series is entirely unknown to Western audiences, but in Japan there were several Hebereke videogames released across the consoles during the early '90s. The main character -- Hebe -- is a spaced-out looking bird-thing wearing a blue winter hat. He served as Sunsoft's mascot for a number of years and appeared in numerous games bearing his namesake. The series includes a Smash Bros-esque fighter, a ripoff of Mario Kart, several more puzzle games, and even a side-scroller for the NES/Famicom. Hebereke's Popoitto closely follows in the footsteps of Hebereke no Popoon, another cutesy bubble-popping puzzle game.

Popoitto is not clever or complicated. At its core, the game is Dr. Mario except the "viruses" (knowns as Poro-porous in this game) shuffle around to increase the difficulty of navigating your pieces. When you drop a piece on top of a Poro-porous, it locks in place. Line up four matching blocks and blow the Poro bubbles up in spectacular fashion. That's about it. The goal is to clear all the Poro-porous on your side before the opponent does or before your field fills all the way up to the top. Mechanically, there isn't much for me to expound upon if you've already played Dr. Mario.

Stage 1 Gameplay | Stage 6 Gameplay

But don't hold that against Popoitto. In the same way that Puyo Puyo was cloned by Kirby's Avalanche and Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine, Popoitto is a good Dr. Mario clone with a lot of charm. Granted, its on a system that is bursting at the seams with innovative and interesting puzzle games. But it's still worthy of your attention. While it might not impress you with innovative mechanics, it more than compensates with a charming graphical style and sugary-sweet sound effects. In particular, popping the Poro on your screen never gets old. I suppose that might seem like a mundane thing to mention, but puzzle games have always suffered from that a bit.

Versus mode is always entertaining if you have a worthy opponent to face against. Strangely, I cannot find good footage of the Vs mode (YouTube has a few videos of Vs battles in Popoon but no footage of Popoitto's Vs mode). Personally, I always enjoyed Dr. Mario as a single-player game first and a multiplayer game second, but your mileage may vary. Whether you're interested in single-player or multiplayer, the game provides enough content for you to keep yourself occupied.

Popoitto is not a must-have for the Saturn. It's a why-not-have-if-you-like-puzzle-games-anyway sort of game, the good ol' standby that you're happy to own. You'll likely never see it on a Top 50 List or even on most "hidden gems" lists. The charming graphics and time-tested gameplay are sufficient reasons to go out and get a copy. I'd recommend introducing it to friends who enjoy easy-to-grasp puzzle games.

Or to put it more succinctly: do you like Dr. Mario? Then you'll like Hebereke's Popoitto.
 
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Not necessarily the most exciting photos, but here are a few Burning Rangers shots via RGB on a Sony PVM-20L5. Just as DT MEDIA suggested the images are considerably brighter and more vivid in real life. In my opinion however, the high TV line count look really isn't all that well suited for the SS/PS1/N64, since 240p is simply too low of a resolution for early 3D games.
 
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These images on the Sony monitor are very clean and crisp, and that excellent color that we always associate with Sony TVs. The scanlines appear to be a bit more pronounced on the PVM than on the Trinitron, but that is expected (and the Trinitron is much crisper than other TV brands of the era, with much less color bleeding). When you sit back and watch from a couple feet away, you won't notice all that much, but it does look terrific.

I tell myself that I should just hoard old Trinitrons and computer monitors and put them in storage for the future, like storing away spare light bulbs. I don't know if CRT TVs are being made anymore, but if there are still manufacturers out there, those days are numbered. 30 years from now, picture-tube televisions will be all but extinct. We need to save them for future generations, museums and so on.

I'm going to miss this technology once it's gone. Modern super-mega-high-definition flat screen displays are nice, but there's no substitute for a good picture tube, especially the analog TVs. And that goes double for classic videogames.
 
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These images on the Sony monitor are very clean and crisp, and that excellent color that we always associate with Sony TVs. The scanlines appear to be a bit more pronounced on the PVM than on the Trinitron, but that is expected (and the Trinitron is much crisper than other TV brands of the era, with much less color bleeding). When you sit back and watch from a couple feet away, you won't notice all that much, but it does look terrific.

I tell myself that I should just hoard old Trinitrons and computer monitors and put them in storage for the future, like storing away spare light bulbs. I don't know if CRT TVs are being made anymore, but if there are still manufacturers out there, those days are numbered. 30 years from now, picture-tube televisions will be all but extinct. We need to save them for future generations, museums and so on.

I'm going to miss this technology once it's gone. Modern super-mega-high-definition flat screen displays are nice, but there's no substitute for a good picture tube, especially the analog TVs. And that goes double for classic videogames.
If you think it would be valuable, I could throw together a post (or maybe post a new thread or revive an old one?) about CRTs and what to watch for. The time of snagging PVMs and BVMs is passed. You can find them, but it's very rare because people know what they are. Sony Trinitron's are a solid bet. So are the Toshibas from that era. Panasonic is pretty reliable, too, though the picture quality isn't as good. Reliable is slightly more important to me as long as the picture quality is acceptable because you can always RGB-mod these displays but you can't really do much if the CRT itself is low-quality and eventually dies out.

One of the best options for CRT lovers would be the range of 17"-22" CRT computer monitors. Sony and Dell both made Trinitron-style PC monitors, and ViewSonic's monitors were high quality. While they may not have built-in speakers, these monitors are considered garbage in most places yet are exceptional quality, easily surpassing any consumer-grade CRT. Heck, I would argue that they're superior to PVMs in many respects.

Those will be the next retro gold-rush. PC CRT monitors. Snatch 'em up!