Gaming

“Playing” Akira (Mega Drive prototype)

Over Christmas 2019 the videogame preservation website The Hidden Place uploaded a ROM dump of a prototype for SEGA’s Mega Drive of an unreleased Akira tie-in, regular readers and those who know me are well aware of my love for Katsuhiro Otomo’s manga and movie, so it comes as no surprise that I had to have a go at this.

It’s worth saying before I go ahead though that this appears to be a very early prototype, in fact, Hidden Place believe this is from before a demonstration at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in 1994, a kind of precursor to E3 (Wikipedia suggests Mega Man X was shown to the public for the first time at the 1993 show, and the first E3 didn’t take place until 1995 when SEGA famously launched their Saturn console). I didn’t even know this existed, I didn’t get properly into videogames (buying magazines, looking forward to future releases etc) until I got a PlayStation, prior to that I’d literally just be playing whatever I fell into my lap.

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What we have here in this prototype is very bare-bones, but its a real good look at what Black Pearl Software were working on (the studio are probably better known for working on Super Star Wars: Return of the Jedi on the SNES and Jungle Strike on the Mega Drive) and it would seem that THQ were to publish the game as Black Pearl Software are listed during the intro’s as a “THQ subsidiary”.

First impressions are quite positive, the attract sequence looks and sounds the part, with the camera panning across the shot of Kaneda that we’re used to from the covers of VHS and DVD copies of the film from over the years. Going into options lets you play with the background music, which was a regular thing that used to happen in games, it’s particularly the work the sound design has done to capture the sound and feel of the movie, there are noticeable elements of the score here and where the composer has had to be creative they mostly hit all the right notes. The level select looks pretty cool too, with a map of Neo-Tokyo and icons telling you who’ll you be playing as and what the gameplay will entail.  There’s no level progression at this stage though, you can select any of them to play at will and a press of the Mega Drives start button (or emulation equivalent) whilst in a level brings you back to this screen.

So the front end is excellent, playing is a bit hit and miss though. Black Pearl has decided to go down the route of using a variety of 16-bit era gaming archetypes to play out key moments from the movies, there’s on bike levels that play like Super Hang-On but clearly use Road Rash as inspiration as you can (playing as either Tetsuo or Kaneda) kick and punch as you ride along. There’s no enemies or traffic to avoid, nor can you hit any of the signs that are along the side of the road. The viewpoint is a little low too, with Kaneda’s bike, in particular, obscuring the player’s view. Whilst the sprites are pretty cool (and the background work of Neo-Tokyo in the distance being particularly impressive) they’re clearly unfinished as turning animations are more than ropey.

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There are four other gameplay styles that the developers have experimented with, to varying levels of success, Kaneda’s levels involve exploring and escaping from the sewers beneath the Olympic Stadium, first on foot and then on a flying platform, on the latter I came across a doorway that I could enter, taking me behind the scenery and beyond a wall, but I couldn’t enter out the other side so my progress was halted, and on the latter, there wasn’t any route through the level. There were pickups available on both, drugs heal and I picked up a gun for Kaneda, whilst on the flying platform level I picked up ammunition, there were also enemies to kill.

Tetsuo’s levels feel like that had the most potential but were probably the least playable. These are played out from a first-person perspective, exploring a map in the manner of an early first-person shooter, though here you don’t have a collection of guns to use, as you have access to Tetsuo’s telekinetic powers. The third level for Tetsuo is played out from an isometric point of view as he walks across a bridge towards groups of soldiers, this level began to glitch quite heavily with the screen tiling rather than scrolling and enemies not dying when hit with a blast from Tetsuo’s powers.

The very last level doesn’t work at all, once you move from the level select screen you’re presented with a background of the Olympic Stadium with sprites of Tetsuo and Kaneda facing each other. I can only guess that this would be a beat-em-up like experience or maybe like the bosses at the end of side-scrolling action games where Kaneda would be tasked with avoiding Tetsuo’s attacks and either kicking and punching him or maybe using the laser from the end of the film to defeat him. However, before you can play, the whole game freezes and crashes forcing you to restart the console/emulator in order to try out the other levels further.

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Hidden Place actually put out a video showing off a lot more content than I managed to see, though I’ll readily admit I didn’t spend much time in each of the levels, usually quitting out once I’d gotten an idea of what was going on. I do intend on spending more time with it and seeing what else I can find (I’ve not watched all of the video as I wanted to see some of this stuff for myself).

There have been a few Akira games released since the movie came out in 1988, though they’re all apparently rather poor (or haven’t even been released outside of Japan), so despite the fact, this isn’t even a game, the experimentation on display from Black Pearl Studio’s at least suggests that we could have had a pretty good game on our hands with a fair bit of variety and some excellent polish, the little video’s introducing each segment are brilliantly done.

Gaming

#ThrowBackThursday ESWAT: City Under Siege

Retro Game Club this week, this time the group voted to play a SEGA Mega Drive/Genesis game I’d never heard of before: ESWAT:City Under Siege. This Mega Drive version is based on the arcade game Cyber Police ESWAT that also saw ports to a variety of other systems including SEGA’s own Master System.

As mentioned above, I’d never heard of ESWAT so I’d gone into this without any nostalgia attached to the title. First impressions are that its what I’d describe as a side scrolling action game. It’s not an all out ” run ‘n’ gun” like Metal Slug and its not a side scrolling brawler like Streets of Rage, its also not a “proper” platformer. It does, however, feature platforms to jump across and shooting, the group has likened it to SEGA’s Shinobi games, but with a futuristic setting and I’d have to agree with that, though my experiences with Shinobi are very limited.

First start off fine, you control a typical cop looking character, walk from right to left (and then left to right as you make your way up the platforms in the first level) and shoot enemies as you go. The second level is a little more technical and it took me a while to get past the second levels boss. This was because I knew you could crouch, then I figured out you can walk and shoot whilst crouched, but I kept standing up to turn and being shot, I’d like to blame the PSP’s d-pad for this, as just holding crouch and moving felt cumbersome, but it was all on me really as it took me ages to realise you could also change the direction your facing whilst crouched. It still took me a few attempts to get past though.

However, its the third level where things really take a turn. You’re suddenly put into what looks a little like a Robocop suit but with jet thrusters on the back. This allows you to stay in the air but you only have a set amount of fuel and, honestly, its best saved for the boss battle, provided you can get there as the difficulty level really gets ramped up with the number of on screen enemies increased greatly and all placed at very different positions. It’s also the first time you have to select different weapons but the game never tells you any of this so there’s alot of trial and error involved that would have, if I weren’t using save states via my emulator, seen me just quit and not bother returning.

Level 2 is the interesting, with you having to nagivate a prison rail system through multiple directions before entering the cells themselves and dispatching the enemies, I ultimately gave up at the boss for level 5.

Being honest, it was a trek getting that far, ESWAT is very much of its time, its also cashing in heavily on the popularity of the Robocop movies in the late Eighties (this version of the game was released in the same month as Robocop 2 premiered in cinemas in 1990, whilst the previous versions of the game arrived the year following the first films release). It’s a competent game at best and its certainly showing its age, that the difficulty level ramps up so drastically in level 3 gives the impression that there was very little outsourced playtesting going on for this version of the game, and its not as though its a properly difficult level, as once you know the mechanics, progression is as simple as before, the issue with it is that the game play changes with brand new mechanics thrown in with no introduction to the player (beyond the suit appearing on the idle and title screens).

I was trying hard not to write it off, but was struggling to find the enthusiasm to play it after an initial couple of plays and its only really with the end of the month arriving and me wanting to write this post that I gave it any more time. It’s easy to see why I’d never heard of ESWAT, I was normally a generation behind during this period in gaming and it seems that even then ESWAT was the type of game that pretty much found its way to the dusty cupboard of games no one really talked about, which whilst I’m all for preservation of gaming history, its hard to make a case for anyone really missing this or of it being a bad game that ought to be remembered.

Gaming

#ThrowBackThursday: Phantasy Star Online

I often use these #ThrowBackThursday posts to reminisce about some of my favourite games that I’ve played since I first picked up a controller, occasionally I’ll cover something old that I’ve been playing recently (usually if its something I’ve picked up cheap on PSP or its one of the Retro Game Club games, which I’ve not actually joined in with this month). So far though the only one that I’ve written about that had any long-term impact on me is Metal Gear Solid, but even that game didn’t have as much an impact on my life, for better or worse, than Sonic Team’s Phantasy Star Online.

Like many games of its era, I came to learn of Phantasy Star Online through a friend, most of the time it was Aaron and this time was no different. He was properly hyped about the Dreamcast prior to its release and would obsess over every image and article he could get his hands on. I remember him showing me screenshots of PSO in some magazine whilst on the bus one day, I don’t recall where we were going but I thought it looked pretty cool. There were two legged bear wolf things (I later learned these were called Booma’s), lightsabers, massive rifles and scantily dressed girls casting magic, what more could an adolescent boy want?

Now, obviously Aaron was first to get a copy, I think he must have used money he got for Christmas to get it. I didn’t have the cash initially, so I bought a VMU (the Dreamcasts answer to the Memory Card) and made a character at his, not knowing that it would be tied to that console/copy of the game and thus I wouldn’t be able to use it elsewhere, and it would take a couple of months doing my five hour a week supermarket job to be able to actually buy a Dreamcast and a copy of the game, at which point Aaron was miles ahead and already has made friends with a group online so wasn’t massively interested in running round with a level 1 character.

So once I had the console and game for myself I decided to start a different type of character. Gone was the purple haired, Disco Stu inspired HUmar (Hunter Male Human) I called Dibley, and in his place (until I had enough VMU’s to have too many characters) was a RAcast (Ranger Male Robot) titled Mumunk 2001, I designed it in such a way that the sliders were at their maximum.

I chipped away in the offline mode, a little afraid to go online, not because of other people, that bit excited me, but it took a while to wear my Mum down to allow me to take the Dreamcast online as at the time we’d have to pay for every minute I spent online. Plus I only had a 50hz TV in my bedroom and the game would ask you upon boot up what refresh rate required and if you went online you’d only be able to play on servers with players of the same. Anyway, she succumbed, I’d be allowed an hour every other night where I could go online using the “big telly” (the one in the living room, a big wide screen Panasonic with surround sound) once my Step Dad had gone to bed.

She was right to be apprehensive though, as I soon started to push my boundaries and ran up huge phone bills, often forcing us to be cut off and her scrambling round to pay the bill before my Step Dad notice and flipped his lid. You see, I’d made my own friends on the game by this point, most of them older or on the other side of the pond (as I was normally playing later at night than my local friends would have been), and wanted to spend as much time as them as possible. When I wasn’t on the Dreamcast with them, keyboard on lap and Feeder, Muse, System of a Down or Linkin Park playing over headphone, I’d be on forums with them discussing more about the game, among other things.

Eventually our tariff changed, I can’t remember if we changed suppliers or if the supplier changed how they handled the internet. I cant remember if we were on BT to begin with and then changed to NTL or if NTL changed things up, but eventually the internet would be free for an hour and then you’d be charged for any time you were still online after that, but there was a way around the restriction. If you disconnected before the hour was up you could immediately reconnected and go online for another hour and so on for as long as you could keep going. Soon enough I’d be using chat shortcuts to signal when I’d have to do this and as many of us were on the same provider we’d often all disconnect and reconnect then meet in our regular lobby for a chat, see who wanted to run what quest (rooms were limited to four players, whilst lobbies could hold many more) and then break off, sometimes communicating with the others individually via the games in-game mailing system.

Eventually the community became fragmented, SEGA released Version 2 of the game which had additional modes, equipment, and additional difficulty level with new bosses and a raised level cap (although it took as long to get to level 101 as it did to get from level 1 to 100), and again I was left behind. I could still communicate with my group of friends but some moved on to other things and some moved onto Version 2 whilst I was still on the original game and they, rightfully, wanted to explore the new content. I made other friends and it was here that I truly became addicted. I’d be up all night, the moment my Step Dad went to bed I’d turn the Dreamcast on and then I’d be on all night, most of the time not even actually playing the game, just chatting in the lobbies, before sneaking upstairs when I knew my Mum’s alarm was about to go off. I started missing college due to lack of sleep and before long was on anti-depressants.

Other problems arose, I started to really enjoy spending time with one particular person on there, and yes it was a girl. She asked if she could phone me one day, so I gave her my number and she called and we spoke for an hour or so, and she made me promise that I’d not tell the rest of our group, thing was I knew she’d done this with almost everyone, and most of them spoke about it via the private messaging system. I happened to mention it to the wrong guy, who seemed to take on a role as her protector, and after that I was ostracised from the group as she got them to close ranks (and none of them admitted to her they’d also told each other about her phone calls). That was bad enough, and I struggled with it for ages, trying to get her to talk to me, either one to one (I wanted her attention and I wanted to apologise for breaking her trust) or with others around it didn’t really matter, but I begun to give up, and chat with a different group, mostly people from an American forum I was also a member of. Occasionally I’d see people who I knew were part of her clique appear in the same lobby, run past my character and then warp to another lobby. This went on for a while, then she would appear, hang round in the lobby, try and chat to the people I was talking to then disappear. I’d tried to say hi the first few times but received no reply and gave up, it was all a bit weird.

As time went on, and even when I eventually got Version 2, I grew tired of doing this routine and moved onto chat rooms and MSN Messenger on the PC instead, which is where I met my partner who I’m still with nearly 17 years later. We have three children together and now I look back on those moments and laugh both at myself and the behaviour of those around me within the game. I played other versions as they were released, the Gamecube one in splitscreen with my partner and the XBox version via XBox Live with a few people I was on a different forum with. I’d played the PC demo SEGA released around the time of Version 2 coming out, although that was mostly to get screenshots and the like to cut up for fan wallpapers I’d then stick on Deviantart or fansites, and ultimately I had a blast at Blue Burst when that came out but was reluctant to buy into SEGA’s subscription model at the time but have since dipped in and out of private servers such as SCHTHACK or Ephinea over the years, often having to restart when the mood takes me to give it a go again as my character would have been wiped due to inactivity.

I even once went through the convoluted process to play PSO2 on PC when that came out in Japan, but there was no translation file then and my PC wasn’t upto snuff for it anyway so I soon stopped playing, but now SEGA and Microsoft have announced PSO2 is to be released on PC and XBox One outside of Japan for the first time and I was genuinely excited, unfortunately there’s nothing on the cards regarding a European release at this time. But when there is I’ll definitely be there!

Gaming

#ThrowBackThursday Panzer Dragoon Orta

Back when I first bought my original XBox, sometime in 2003, there were two games I wanted for it more than any others, the first was Jet Set Radio Future, the other was Panzer Dragoon Orta. I’d only ever played a tiny little bit of the original Panzer Dragoon on the Saturn (it may have even been Zwei) and I barely remember any of what I played, but the feeling of riding a dragon and shooting stuff out of the sky stayed with me, as did the games visual design, in particular that of the dragons which (apart from the wings and tail) don’t really look anything like what you or I would describe if asked what a dragon looked like.

The XBox was the second of that generations consoles that I owned, I got a Gamecube of my own a little later when everywhere was selling it off really cheap, and whilst most people bought the system for Halo, I was interested in SEGA’s output coming off the back of the Dreamcast bombing. With titles like the two already mentioned, plus SEGA GT and Crazy Taxi 3, Microsofts (then) humongous console felt like the perfect console for me. That it later got other key SEGA games was further proof of that.

Onto Panzer Dragoon Orta though, as mentioned, I’d had a very brief play of a previous title in the series and knew of the rarity of SEGA’s RPG entry into the series. I’d also played alot of Rez via the PS2 version (because the Dreamcast version was hard to get for someone who’d recently left a big city and moved to a medium sized town). All that magazines were saying how stunning it was visually, so after being payed one day, I left work out the back door and headed to the independent games shop that was on the road behind the shop I worked in at the time. Handed over my cash and walked out with a very heavy bag containing an XBox, Jet Set Radio Future and Panzer Dragoon Orta.

I played the latter through until completion and loved it at the time, but never really returned to it. That is until SEGA unveiled they were remastering the original Panzer Dragoon for Switch at this years E3. I checked the XBox One backwards compatability list, saw that Orta would work on my One S and got the ladders out to go search the loft and soon came down with my copy.

Straight away I’m genuinely blown away by just how good it looks, it was a looker at the time and I was expecting it to have aged a little in that time but it really has stood up to the test of time. Okay, its not of the quality of a AAA game released today but its still a stunning looking game. Which it doesn’t have any rights to be. Panzer Dragoon Orta was released between December 2002 and March 2003 depending upon where in the world you live. Thats roughly the same time frame as Devil May Cry 2 and The Getaway were released on PlayStation 2 which haven’t aged well at all, and whilst yes, I understand the XBox was more powerful than the PlayStation 2, there’s a certain level of fidelity, not to mention design choices, that really make Panzer Dragoon Orta really stand out.

It’s not worth much if it only looks good though, so thankfully Smilebit knocked it out of the park with the gameplay too. What we have here is an on-rails shooter, like Rez, Afterburner, Space Harrier and Lylat Wars. You follow a pre-determined route and move the player character, in this case the titular Orta riding a dragon who breaks her out of prison cell, around the screen, dodging parts of the environment and enemy fire whilst unleashing plasmoid hell on anything that gets in your way. You can move the camera through four different viewpoints (forwards, backwards and each side) much like in Rez and have a few different attacks available to you.

One thing is for certain, its not as easy as Rez. The two share alot of similarities, but Mizuguhi’s shooter is very definetly about the combined experience of the visuals and creation of music. Panzer Dragoon Orta is very old-skool in its styling, a near perfect evolution of some of those 80’s arcade games that have become synonymous with the SEGA name and thus its aged incredibly well as a game, the visuals just add to that.

Gaming

#ThrowBackThursday Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse

For May the Retro Gaming Club played through the original Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse. Some played the Master System version, some the Game Gear release and others the Mega Drive one. Some played all three, I played the Mega Drive one via emulation on my PSP.

Castle of Illusion was developed and released by SEGA prior to them releasing Sonic the Hedgehog, in a way it was the SEGA consoles’ competitor to Nintendo’s Mario games due to the time in which it was released. SEGA at that point had relied on their mascot at the time, Alex Kidd but I don’t think that he was ever likely the one to take Mario’s crown. A good platformer featuring a character who was more renowned than Mario though? That’s more like it.

My recollection of the time was that it was another game in a long line that had me interested in the system, and I spoke in my Sonic 2 and Rocky throwbacks of how much I wanted a Mega Drive. I don’t ever recall actually playing Castle of Illusion, but I’m certain I played its sequel World of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck at a friends house a few times. So really, I went into this one fairly blind.

First off, it looks lovely, and I know I’ve said this often, and maybe its the PSP’s still pretty gorgeous screen or that 16-bit games have aged incredibly well, but it looks lovely. It obviously has its limitations and the animation obviously isn’t that of a Saturday morning cartoon but it definitely brought back memories of waiting at the airport when going on holiday in Jersey and reading comic strip panels with Mickey Mouse and co in from one of the pull out sections of my Uncles newspaper. Each level looks totally different with unique enemies in each so that visually it never gets boring, and the worlds behind each door way are interesting and fun with the odd hint to some of Disney’s own history (one boss is reminiscent of Pete’s Dragon), albeit this is a standalone tale of its own.

Level’s are short and sweet, although I definitely took advantage of my emulator’s Save State ability as the controls can feel a little imprecise and once Mickey’s lives are lost you’re sent right back to the beginning of the game, there’s no saving at all as far as I can tell and this definitely harks back to the “must complete in one play through” days of yore. There’s nothing wrong with that and maybe back then I’d be more inclined to keep trying as that was just how games were, now though we’re spoiled by saving structures, particularly autosave, and thus these types of games feel harder now than they did back then. Mickey can use two methods to defeat his foes, he can jump on them (however you have to press jump twice to pull of the bottom bounce required to defeat a foe, hitting one with a standard jump will deplete your health bar) or you can throw collectible items at them, a level is complete once you defeat its boss, again achieved by throwing items at them or bouncing off them. Due to the small area’s within these boss fights take place they often feel more difficult than they actually are.

It’s a charming little game though, its length means it never manages to outstay it’s welcome although this is probably a design decision based upon finishing in one sitting than it was the developers deciding they wanted that mood set. The story is uncomplicated, an evil with wants to steal Minnie’s youth and its upto Mickey to save the day, is typical of the time and particularly reminiscent of Super Mario Bros. which is probably what the team at SEGA were trying to emulate. Does it stand up as well as Nintendo’s defining platformer? I’d say no, it feels a little sluggish in comparison (despite the more primitive hardware that Nintendo’s game was on) and as I’ve mentioned the controls don’t feel quite accurate enough which is what makes Mario really stand up well today. It was still fun to play as a curiosity though.

Gaming

#ThrowBackThursday Rocky

Back in the early 90s I so wanted a Mega Drive, a bunch of my friends had them (as I mentioned last week when I covered Sonic 2) and I really wanted one too. I’d had an Atari (a 2600 junior) that a much older cousin had given me that I played alot of Centipede on, and I’d had my older brothers NES (which was stolen by a different cousin who was living with us at one point, he sold it before my Dad could do anything about it but was asked to move out shortly afterwards) when he had bought himself a SNES, but I wanted something the other kids at school were playing on and that was a Mega Drive. Instead one Christmas I opened up a cardboard box that had been wrapped up to find a second hand Master System II. I knew we weren’t well off and I was perfectly happy with it.

I don’t remember when I got Rocky, but I do know that at the time I was a little obsessed with Sylvester Stallone’s boxing franchise, I’d got one of those little punch bags that were on a plastic plate you stood on and I’d watch Rocky IV most weekends when I’d go over to my Mums house. When I got Rocky on my Master System I was incredibly happy and I played it a ridiculous amount (although compared to how most kids play games now it was hardly anything!), I must have worn down the d-pad on my controller as when I got a copy of Marble Madness I couldn’t get the marble to go right.

With this weekly feature in mind I returned to Rocky via an emulator on one of my PSP’s and just could not get past Clubber Lang. There’s actually only three fights in the entire game, Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang and Ivan Drago and you partake in some training mini-games in between fights which apparently improve Rocky’s skills but I couldn’t really tell any difference regardless of how I performed in the training sessions, although if you don’t meet the qualifying score at the bottom of the screen you aren’t allowed to progress to the next fight. The fights themselves are mostly about hammering the punch button to jab your opponent, you do have a hook and uppercut available to you too and both are easy to pull off, although their usefulness often feels as random as blocking does. The fights are over quite quickly, its possible to go to 15 rounds but its not something I achieved when returning to Rocky nor remember getting to when I played it around twenty-five years ago.

It looks good though, especially for a game made in 1987 (making it 32 years old, I got my Master System very late on, although I discovered recently that SEGA supported the console upto the mid-90s in the UK and I know they supported it much, much longer than that in the likes of Brazil!) and for such a simple game its still kind of fun to play.

Gaming

#ThrowBackThursday: Sonic the Hedgehog 2

After the recent trailer for the godawful looking Sonic the Hedgehog live-action movie, I decided that I’d go back and play what is mostly regarded as the best Sonic game, Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Yes, I know theres an argument to be made that the best Sonic is Sonic 3 & Knuckles, but I’ve never actually played that.

In actual fact the most I’d ever played Sonic 2 was at a friends house as a kid. Well, a couple of friends actually, as I didn’t own a Mega Drive for myself until about 2008 when I got one off a car boot and thats spent a good few years sat in my loft as I don’t have the space to have my collection set up and on display. We mostly played the 2 player special stages when I visited friends’ house, although I did “help” occasionally as Tails on their play throughs, but only ever saw bits of levels at a time. I remember the first four levels, although I may have gotten through those via emulation in the years since it came out, and I remember controlling Tails’ plane on Sky Chase then watching a friend on Wing Fortress, but beyond that I don’t remember much of whats in between or after those zones until this recent play through.

For Sonic 2, Sonic Team introduced two new key features, the most obvious is Tails, whom either runs along behind Sonic or can be controlled via a second player (always my role as a kid), the other introduction was the Spin Dash, a move that has become such a part of the Sonic experience that many forget that it wasn’t there from the start. Emerald Hill Zone, much like the games predecessors Green Hill Zone, gets things off quickly and its very easy to get through to the end of both Acts without incident and a fast pace but as the game progresses the area’s become more technical and call upon the player to combine both Sonic’s speed and his maneuverability to traverse the levels. Some of the Acts are almost maze like, according to the timer in the top left corner of the screen I spent around 10 minutes working my way through Act 2 of Metropolis Zone, and whilst I enjoyed the zone’s music at the start of Act 1 by the end of its third Act I was finding it really annoying.

On the subject of the music, none of Sonic 2’s offerings are as iconic as Green Hill Zone nor as wonderful as Starlight Zone (which I think is still my favourite piece of Sonic the Hedgehog music, Open Your Heart from Sonic Adventure is wonderfully cheesy but its just not as good as Starlight Zone imo), but whilst Metropolis Zone’s music outstayed its welcome it was mostly because it would repeat itself so quickly and so often and there weren’t many Invincibility boxes scattered in the level (which is fine) to break up the monotony of the tune.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is still a brilliant platformer. Purests will say its not as long, nor as deep as Super Mario World which was released two years before Sonic Team’s game, and despite going head-to-head with each other, Sonic 2’s goal was always to continue SEGA’s edgy, cool and exciting approach to gaming. Has it aged as well as Super Mario World? You know what, I think it has, it still looks wonderful and when you’re good at it it provides the same assault on your senses as it always did. Theres a few enemy designs later on I wasn’t keen on (again, Metropolis Zone, which has a habit of putting its punching crabs and praying mantis enemies in exactly the wrong places) and there is sometimes an over-reliance on intricate platforming and small platforms that require dexterity to overcome (I properly abused the PSP SEGA Mega Drive Collection’s save game feature to get through some of them), but, importantly, its still really good fun to play through now. Which bodes well for the Mega Drive Mini’s release later in the year.

Gaming

#ThrowBackThursday – OutRun 2006 Coast 2 Coast

I’m a bit of a racing game nut, one of my earliest memories of playing a game was visiting a department store as a kid on the annual trip with my Aunt to visit Santa and seeing and playing a Super Nintendo demo pod with F-Zero running. Prior to that I had one of those Tomy chase the lights toys with the steering wheel and gear stick, I think I wore that out. There were also our family holidays to Jersey, where the hotel had a cocktail cabinet of Rally-X, and Mablethorpe, where there was all sorts of goodies to play but I definitely remember sitting in an OutRun cab and pretending to play it whilst begging my Dad for some change to play it properly.

So its with that particular memory in mind that I’m drawn to OutRun 2, I’ve played it in the arcades, on the original XBox and OutRun Online Arcade on XBox 360 (plus various versions of the first game over the years) and now I’ve happened upon finding a copy of OutRun 2006 Coast 2 Coast in a local charity shop for the absolute bargain of £2! I spent the following day digging around for my PSP and had to order a new charge cable as my daughter had lost my old one when she borrowed it to play Persona 3 Portable. But now, with the lovely weather we’ve been having, I’ve sunk some real time into SEGA’s handheld racer and what a conversion it is!

Very few types of games consistently send me to that happy zen like place like a SEGA blue skies racer: OutRun, Daytona, SEGA Rally, even Crazy Taxi, no one other than SEGA has been as good at this sort of game for so long. One of gamings greatest pleasures is also one of its simplest, initiating a long slide round a corner in an expensive sports car whilst soft rock blares out of the speakers. Magical Sound Shower, Splash Wave etc.

None of that would matter though if the OutRun 2006 didnt control well or work well on the PSP, thankfully it does, mostly. Theres absolutely nothing wrong with the controls, its as intuitive as you’d expect from an arcade racer and getting your car sideways through traffic is as simple as letting off the accelerator, tapping the brake, turning and getting back on the power, then just tapping the direction you want to travel in to avoid hitting any cars that come you way. Thankfully, this isn’t Burnout and OutRun 2006’s roads are the worlds longest one way system.

Performance wise theres a minor niggle of a less than perfect frame rate, but if your PSP is modded (which is incredibly easy to do now days) then you can “overclock” it and eke out that tiny bit more performance which allows OutRun 2006 to truly shine.

Gaming

20 for 20: Dreamcast

This week the Dreamcast turned 20 in Japan, it wasn’t released here in the UK for almost another year and I wouldn’t get one for myself until a further year later, by which time SEGA had all but abandoned the console, but the little white system with the blue swirl (European region) left a massive mark on me as a gamer. Actually I’d say the Dreamcast is what made me into the gamer I am today, the PlayStation was where I cut my teeth but the Dreamcast is where I decided this was the hobby for me.

I was there early on, a friend, Aaron, brought a copy of EDGE into school one day. We both frequently brought gaming mags in, his were mostly PC and mine were the Official PlayStation Magazine and we both loved C&VG. “SEGA is Dead, Long Live Dreamcast” the cover of EDGE #60 declared in white text on a bold orange background. We spent our lunch break that day reading through the article and absorbing the pictures rather than joining in with the game of football that was taking place on the concrete netball court, we’d occassionally have to dive out the way to avoid being hit by the ball (or a rogue shoe as it was the trend to tuck your laces into your shoes and thus a shot would usually be followed by someones shoe flying goalwards). As the weeks and months from that article passed, we’d absorb everything G&VG would publish about the console, particularly anything from Ed Lomas and Aaron covered his GCSE art folder in screenshots and artwork from Sonic Adventure.

Once the console did arrive he was the only one to get one right away, both Steven and I had PlayStations and Richard an N64, I remember Steven, his brother Chris and I all going over to Aarons to have a go on it and I’d frequently be over there try to advance on my save file of Sonic Adventure, one weekend we stayed up through the night and played through Mission Battle mode on Soul Calibur a number of times. We’d usually congregate at Stevens after school and Aaron would normally bring his Dreamcast, he’d gone all out and got multiple pads so we could play multiplayer (it also helped his brother also had a Dreamcast but rarely used it so Aaron would often borrow his controller to make sure we could play four player games). Early favourites were Toy Commander and Red Dog, whilst Fur Fighters and Re-Volt were also added to the mix, plus a bit of drunken Samba de Amigo.

I remember going with him to Gamestation to buy Crazy Taxi when it was finally released and being absolutely blown away, not only did I love how the game played it also came at a time when I was really getting into music. Then came Phantasy Star Online, I had a character on a VMU at Aarons, but then Steven bought a Dreamcast so they could both play online together, feeling left out I managed to scrape enough together to get a second hand Dreamcast (which were plentiful as people were desperate to get their hands on the PS2) alongside a copy of Phantasy Star Online.

Nothing else has grabbed me like this game did, I forged new friendships, fell for people I’d never met (nor meet) and become well and truly addicted, I would sit and grind in the offline mode on my shitty 50hz colour TV that I had in my bedroom until my Mum and Step Dad had gone to bed then take the Dreamcast downstairs, hook it up to the “big TV” and the phone line and go online, usually only signing off shortly before my Mum would get up for work and packing it all away, pretend to be asleep and let her “wake” me up to go to college, which I’d begun to bunk off from without her knowledge, each month the phone bill would come through the door and each month I’d get a scolding from her for the size of it, sometimes I’d get banned from going on but I never really gave it up until I moved onto MSN Chat Rooms almost 2 years later. During this time I was playing with a group that included a player  I really liked playing with, it was well known within the group that this particular player was female, I cant put my finger on why, but maybe it was because this girl gave me attention as I’d never really been able to develop more than a friendship with girls at school and other than my younger sister (who only played platformers, which didnt count) I’d only gotten to know one other “girl gamer” (who also happened to play PSO but was also a few years older than me). There was nothing there to suggest she liked me back but one day she asked if she could phone me, I gave her the house number and we both logged off, I plugged the phone back in and it rung shortly afterwards, we chatted for a while, I dont even remember what about, but I became a little obsessed afterwards and essentially ruined our friendship, and became ostracised from the group of people I’d been playing with due to my behaviour. It was a major moment in me growing up and eventually played a part in me leaving PSO (that and we got Broadband when NTL rolled that out so I couldnt take the Dreamcast online any more).

Its funny thinking of SEGAs last console now, in a way it feels right that it was the console that I played most of during my adolescence and the console still means alot to me even now. for a short, intense period of my life the Dreamcast was the main social hub of my development, my core group of friends would gather to compete against each other or share new experiences, and due to the small catalogue of titles it was easy for everyone to be playing the same things or recommend stuff to each other. That it was abandoned before it had barely gotten started by both the market and its creators meant titles were easy to get hold of for an age group that was starting their first jobs and had little else to spend money on other than booze. It was also our window into a much bigger world, our first experiences of going online were via the Dreamcast and it also led first Aaron and then later myself down the path of writing about games.