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B-Wings (NES) artwork

B-Wings (NES) review

"ATOMIC ROBO-KID (Genesis - 1/25/04) -- 4/10 "

ATOMIC ROBO-KID (Genesis - 1/25/04) -- 4/10

So, your world is on the brink of destruction thanks to the evil mischief caused by a group of diabolical robotic governors. Who will you call upon to save all of existence from the dire fate awaiting it?

If your answer is, “A small robot that looks like an abused tin can,” you just might be in the mood to play a Genesis shooting game going by the name of Atomic Robo-Kid! You also likely won't be asked to participate in any top-secret meeting concerning your nation's defense, but that's a different topic for another day.

This game gives a great effort to add gameplay elements that differentiate it from the average, run-of-the-mill shooter -- however, it doesn’t always do such a great job of carrying out those elements.

In the post-apocalyptic world that your l’il robo-buddy is trying to save for whatever reason, you’ll get to navigate 19 stages. Sound imposing, considering that most shooters prefer to keep their number of levels in the single digits? Well, it’s not. Most of these levels are extremely short, pretty easy and can be navigated in a couple of minutes.

Unlike the average shooter, where you follow a set path that is determined by an automatically scrolling screen, your robotic hero can move in all directions at any time. Unfortunately, only a few of the game’s stages actually take advantage of this mobility by giving you multiple paths to choose from.

Most of the stages involve you traveling down a linear tunnel of some sort where the only thing that backtracking will accomplish is to cause enemies to regenerate. So, don’t be thinking that the freedom of movement your character has will transform this game into a Genesis version of Metroid --- essentially it is just a simple shooter with a different control scheme.

As in most shooters, you may pick up a number of power-ups. There are the robot-enhancing speed and shield power-ups, as well as four weapons: an upgraded version of your original shot, a three-way attack, a missile and a spread shot.

Unfortunately, this game does a horrible job of providing balance between these power-ups and enhancements. Of the four weapons, the upgraded shot will be used by most players for nearly all of the game. With the ability to shoot rapidly and go through enemies to hit others, this weapon is easily superior to the other three.

While the missile is likely the most powerful and the best equipped to shoot down enemy projectiles, it is also the most awkward to use, as it fires in whatever direction you happen to be pressing the control pad (while other weapons only go to the right and left). The three-way shot is very useful for killing foes that are shielded by natural obstructions, but inferior to others for straight-ahead blasting --- while the spread shot is only useful against large swarms of weak enemies.

The game is kind enough to allow you to keep old weapons when you pick up new, though. This allows you to switch from the upgraded shot to a different weapon when you’re in a situation where a different mode of attack may be useful.

You’ll notice the upgraded shot to be most useful during your battles with the robotic governors. In most of these battles, you’ll find it simple to get behind the beast, shoot through its body and blast its weak spot repeatedly while it can only move toward you slowly, likely wishing its programmers hadn’t bestowed such crippling weaknesses upon it.

In fact, the only boss any real aptitude is necessary to defeat is the final one, which is extremely difficult due to the small amount of maneuvering room and the large amount of bullets it tends to fire at you. Personally, I found that refreshing, as the first few bosses seemed to go down without offering up much (if any) of a fight. After so much tedium, anything resembling an actual challenge was very welcome.

However, there was one more major positive factor involving the final governor -- the fact that it is the only governor battle that is not immediately followed by a duel level.

These one-screen battles to the death can essentially be described as an interesting idea that flopped in a major way. You’re on one side of the screen, an enemy Robo-Kid is on the other and a barrier is in between you. The goal is to shoot the enemy before it shoots you, with one hit being all that is necessary to come out victorious. Sadly, these battles feel more like filler thrown in at the last minute than an actual attempt to enrich the experience of the game. Unlike the rest of the game, this area is blatantly cheap. With the possible exception of the final governor battle, odds are that you’ll lose more lives in these duels than you will at any other point in the game.

Of course, that might not be saying much as the majority of this game is pretty easy. Every once in a while, you’ll start a level with enemies blasting at you the second you appear on the screen. And a number of levels may have a tricky area or two where either a very tough enemy makes life tough for you or a number of weak enemies are located in very strategic locations. But, overall, there is not a huge amount of challenge to negotiating the many levels of this game.

Well, “many levels” in theory only. While the backgrounds in this game are quite well done, ranging from forests to mechanical landscapes to zones that look like the innards of a giant monster (i.e. Abadox), at times you will feel a definite sense of deja vu. There just are too many times in which a background is repeated on multiple levels with no apparent connection between said levels. At least in a game like The Guardian Legend, all the similar zones were grouped together under a specific theme. Here, it just gives the impression of a small number of diverse areas that got duplicated, mixed up and thrown together randomly.

However, the game should be commended for attempting to insert a bit of storyline into the action, as most shooters tend to rely on the back of the box and first page of the instruction manual to give you the entire story (with a planet exploding with the words “Congratulations, You Won” appearing on the screen as the entire in-game storyline advancement).

After winning a duel, you get to watch Robo-Kid waddle to a CPU unit and engage in a brief discussion before going through the next set of three to four levels. While it’s not the most effective story-telling in a videogame (I spent most of my time wondering why a futuristic robot would interject the word “gnarly” into conversation), it is an admirable effort, especially considered that most shooters of this time period never bothered with minor technicalities as an in-game story.

The game’s soundtrack also could be considered a positive. While I wouldn’t exactly call it a masterpiece of home video game music, it does an admirable job providing background effects for a futuristic shooter.

Those positives, combined with solid (if not great) play control that is marred slightly by some occasional inaccurate hit detection, do prevent this game from being classed as an utter failure. I wouldn’t consider Atomic Robo-Kid a “must-play” game for anyone, but I would consider it worth a couple of hours of your time if you either are addicted to shooters and want to play any that have any redeeming factors or if you’re looking for something that isn’t somewhat identical to every other shooter out there.

Because that is what this game is: a shooter that applies some concepts uncharacteristic of the genre. While it doesn’t apply them with a great deal of success, at least it makes an attempt to be different, which is more than you can say about the vast majority of average to substandard (and high-quality, too) games in the shooting genre.

ALPHA MISSION (NES - 1/25/04) -- 1/10

One of the most popular genres of video game throughout time has been the shoot-em-up. From the all-time classic Space Invaders to Gradius to Einhander, many gaming systems have made the shmup a key part of their library.

Unfortunately, not every one of these games can be a classic....or even a quality playing experience. Alpha Mission for the NES falls into this category.

On the surface, this game would seem to be an outer space version of Xevious. One button controls your ship's gun, while the other launches bombs in order to destroy targets on the ground. Some of those ground targets are enemy installations, while other conceal power-ups and other surprises for your ship. Unlike Xevious, this game has unique bosses for each level (as opposed to fighting the same mothership every time).

Sound good so far? Well, sorry to say, but the actual gameplay does NOT live up to that description. What are the problems of this game? Well, this might take a while, so be patient.

1. It's ugly. While the NES might not have been the most visually appealing system out there, it's not like the graphics were stuck at ''horrible'' with no way to move up. Look at shmups like Over Horizon, Guardian Legend (the arcade stages) and many others. Now, look at this game. The bland backgrounds and unimaginative enemy designs (for the most part) are sadly stale even by comparison of other games released in the same general time frame.

2. You're slow. Compared to enemies, your ship isn't exactly a speed demon. And after you've built up your speed by running into a few power-ups....well, you'll notice that some of the enemies will zip up from the bottom of the screen at the speed of light, ensuring a quick death for you unless you either are in the right place or you have memorized their pattern. A high degree of difficulty doesn't bother me --- dying repeatedly because a wave of enemies drilled me from behind because they sped across the screen too fast for me to get out of the way is a problem.

3. Cheap power-ups. You've spent a decent amount of effort bulking up your shot, improving your bombs and speeding up your ship so you at least have a fair shot of dodging most enemies. Then, you pick up a ''C'' or a backwards ''K'' and ---- BOOM! ---- you realize you've lost the effect of every single power-up you've collected over the course of the game. Yep, that's a great way to keep the player into the game. The ''R'' power-up also will grate on your nerves, as it sends you a decent way backwards in whatever level you are in. To be honest, after powering up my ship, the only icons I picked up were the ones marked ''W'', as they warped you farther into your current level, making the game go by a bit quicker.

4. Bosses aren't exactly bursting with imagination. Of the first four, they all have roughly the same attack. Wander around the screen shooting bullets in waves. If you don't kill them quickly, the bullets turn red and home in on you to a degree. Keep them alive longer and the bullets turn blue and stop your bullets, in effect helping to shield the monster from you. The fifth boss is only different in that it teleports around the screen. The sixth boss is different from the other five, but is more of a tedious task than anything actually memorable. After that, I believe the game loops over, but I'm not 100 percent sure (after seeing that the seventh level's boss is the same as the first level's, I stopped playing and vowed never to touch the game again). Oh, by the way, don't use your gun on the second boss. You can only hurt it with your bombs, but without being told that, there is no way to know. You see, this game gives no indication that you are damaging a boss other than it changing color right before death.

So, as you can see, this game is supremely loaded with flaws and poor gameplay. Really, it would take a great amount of effort to find anything positive in the experience that it provides.

Maybe the music? While it is quite generic, at least it's not as bad as the actual game (if it was, my ears would likely have bled profusely during the course of play).

Possibly the difficulty level? Well, this is a very tough game, but the challenge is due to the cheapness. A slow-moving ship combined with ''power-ups'' that actually destroy your ships ability to fight effectively and enemies that bombard you quickly from all angles is not exactly a fun challenge. Unless your idea of fun involves submitting to such acts as the Chinese Water Torture or having splinters of wood being driven under your fingernails.

Well, when the only nice things you can say about a game are that the music isn't as bad as the game and that it's hard --- and then you have to add that it's not challenging in a fun way --- it's just not possible to give it a quality rating. Off the top of my head, I just can't think of a single shmup I got less enjoyment from than this game and I'd be hard-pressed to think of any game (regardless of genre or system) that provided more negative memories.

SHADOW MADNESS (PlayStation - 1/25/04) -- 3/10

Throughout the early history of console role-playing games, one common failing was that a game's plot and story just weren't up to par with the actual gameplay. You'd be playing a game with a great battle system, good challenge, cool enemies and challenging gameplay -- but the storyline would fall under a generic ''save the princess/slay the bad guy who's taking over the world for reasons unknown'' theme and the most in-depth dialogue would be ''Talk to the King.''

Shadow Madness, an RPG released by Crave for the Playstation, is the exact opposite of that, though. A decent story (with many subplots) involving evil beings from an underground country teaming up with a rogue wizard and a diabolical demon to take over the overworld using a diabolical plague to drive everyone insane. Amazing dialogue which stretches from hilarious to poignant. Characters that (through the game's use of the dialogue) actually seem like they are more than one-dimensional works of fiction.

So, does the game sound like an instant classic so far? Well, sad to say, it falls far short of even being considered quality. Why? Because the dialogue and story-telling were the ONLY things that the designers got right with this one.

Some of the flaws are forgivable -- such as the muddy and simple graphics. RPGs weren't known for their graphical excellence until recent years, so I find it hard to condemn a game in that genre for looking a bit primitive as long as it delivers in other fields of play.

Unfortunately, Shadow Madness doesn't. Here is what is wrong with it in a nutshell.

1. Challenge. Early in the game, as your main character is exploring a mountain and navigating a cave on said mountain to fight the first boss, you might be fooled into thinking that this is one tough game. To have a good shot at winning that first boss battle, it is necessary to spend a wee bit of time leveling up on the mountain --- and it still can pose a threat. Sadly, that part of the game just might be the last thing you find challenging. As the game goes on it just gets easier and easier, turning the final battles with the main villains of the game into anticlimactic yawn-inducing dominations of overmatched foes.

2. Game balance. So, why does the game get so easy? The answer to that lies in how quickly your characters can reach their maximum level. Whenever the game decides it's time for a random encounter, it gives you a warning beforehand (in the form of an audible growl). At this time you have the option of fighting the battle or hitting a button to ''duck'' and avoid conflict. When I played the game, I didn't go out of my way to gain levels (i.e. staying in one area to harvest enemies for hours), but I didn't make a habit of avoiding conflict, either. The end result was that roughly half of my characters were maxed out at the end of the first of the game's two discs. Under no circumstance should a player be able to max out a character that early in an RPG without going through extraordinary inconvenience to do so. But in Shadow Madness, it was simplicity itself and led to me being able to essentially bully through every single encounter in the game after a certain point.

And let's face it -- that just isn't fun. No matter how well each character is personified. No matter how entertaining the story is. No matter how many extras the game tries to throw in (the Doom-style mini-games, the alternate ending obtained by using a secret item, etc.). No matter what positives the game has, it all just gets buried under the simple truth that this game's balance and challenge problems are too detrimental to the overall product to make it enjoyable.

I can't say that I would never recommend this game to anyone, as the story and dialogue alone are worth experiencing. But I can warn you that if you do play it, you had better have a high tolerance for boring game play -- because after a certain point, that's all you will find.

ADVENTURE (Atari 2600 - 1/26/04) -- 10/10

When one thinks of the Atari 2600, odds are that the words ''Role-Playing Game'' will not immediately spring to mind. After all, this incredibly simple video gaming machine was far more suited to simple arcade-style games where the primary goal was to stay alive until the game's speed exceeded the player's reflexes, such as members of the Pac-Man and Donkey Kong family. More complex games with set goals (such as Adventure, Haunted House and Riddle of the Sphinx) were produced far less frequently and often were lost among the glut of crudely translated arcade games and cheap attempts to capitalize off popular movie licenses (E.T., anyone?).

But, as Adventure proves, even the most simple of systems can create a being of pure beauty --- a game that could arguably be considered the inspiration (or at least some sort of influence) for games such as The Legend of Zelda and any other game in which concepts such as mapping terrain and finding the correct use for items are of equal or greater importance than having hair-trigger reflexes.

The premise for this game is simple -- due to the dastardly deeds of an evil wizard, your castle's magical chalice has been stolen. You must control a brave knight (appearing as a small square) and bring the chalice back to your castle, braving whatever dangers lie in your path.

The primary obstacle to solving this mission are the three dragons (Yellow, Green and Red) enlisted by the wizard to make sure the chalice remains in his possession. Also, you potentially will have to worry about a bat that loves to either take items and fly off with them or trade the item it is holding for another one. This immortal critter can be either a positive or negative influence in the game. If it drags off a dragon that has been chasing you all over the game's world, that is positive. However, if it takes the sword or chalice away from you at a crucial time, then you probably won't be overly grateful for the visit by your winged friend.

To combat these obstacles and negotiate the various mazes this game is loaded with, there are a number of items that you may use to help in your quest. Dragon giving you grief? Kill it with the sword. Lost in a maze? Use the bridge to scale gaps. Can't get in the castle? Well, there has to be an appropriate key somewhere.

Also, certain items may either attract or scare off one or more of the dragons. However, you may only carry one item at a time --- which means you had better not be caught with the wrong item at the wrong time. After all, if two dragons ambush you, a sword is more effective than the Yellow Key...

Where this game truly shines is in its replay value. There are three levels of challenge, with the third level being far superior to the other two. While levels one and two are exactly the same each time you play them (with two having a larger world and more obstacles than one), the third level is different each time you play it. Using the ''large'' world map that the second level has, the third level places each item, dragon and the bat in a completely random location. You may start a new game only to find the ferocious Red Dragon right beside you. Or maybe, the Chalice will be right on the beginning screen with you --- but you'll have to find the Yellow Key to get into your castle. With a near-endless number of quest possibilities, this mode of play is quite addicting and definitely plays a huge role in this game getting the superior rating that it boasts.

And let's face it --- this game does nothing to be undeserving of being rated a ''10''. When compared to other games of its general era, Adventure has to be considered a paragon of excellence. I would even go as far as to say this is one of a slim handful of Atari 2600 games that actually has the ability to stand the test of time and be considered entertaining even today -- regardless of how technologically challenged the Atari 2600 is compared to today's gaming systems.

B-WINGS (NES - 1/27/04) -- 4/10

At first glance, B-Wing runs the risk of being considered nothing more than bottom of the barrel refuse -- the sort of game that if called “a dime a dozen”, the other 11 games making up that number would likely be insulted.

The combination of horribly blocky graphics combined with backgrounds that were apparently designed by the head programmer’s two-year-old child (“Wow, kids, look at that! Another pure blue background with squares littering it!!”) don’t exactly make this NES shooter an aesthetic delight. Combine that with the fact that this game stretches on for an unbelievable 30 vertically-scrolling levels and you have the makings for a dud of tragic proportions.

But for some strange reason, B-Wing grew on me after a while. It didn't to the degree where I’m planning to stand on a soapbox exhorting each and every person to drop whatever they are doing and get their hands on this game by whatever means necessary. However, I would recommend it to avid (or rabid) fans of retro shooters that are looking for one more game to sink their teeth into.

Why? Because after suffering through a few early levels, I gradually came to realize that this particular offering has a certain something that is lacking in most shooters -- strategy. At the beginning of the game and at the onset of a couple other levels, you are instructed to pick one of a number of wings to fit onto your base ship (creating a disturbingly phallic image). Also, throughout each level, there are three or more wings floating around just waiting for some lucky ship to equip them.

While your ship by itself is pathetically weak, shooting missiles one at a time, the addition of the wing units can alter the shape of things greatly. To give just a couple of examples, the Cannon wing allows you to fire a concentrated burst of squares and hearts rapidly, while the Side wing gives very little firepower to your ship’s front, but packs quite a punch to anything approaching from your ship’s left and right.

So, what does this have to do with strategy? After all, doesn’t virtually every shooter have some sort of variety as far as your weaponry goes? True, but not every game makes picking the correct weapon an integral part of getting through a majority of the levels.

First off, a key component of each and every level (as important if not more so than the actual enemies) is the enormous quantity of obstacles littering the screen. Fortunately, these barricades can be destroyed by one or two shots to their weak point. Unfortunately, these weak points aren’t always accessible to any given weapon. In some areas, you might find that you’ll be confined to a small portion of the screen and quite vulnerable to enemy fire if you don’t have the Side wing. In other areas, you’ll find it impossible to proceed without the Jump wing, a device that has the ability to ignore walls blocking a weak point.

Second, there are some bosses that follow this same script. After playing a few levels, it is easy to be lulled into trying to keep the Fire wing equipped for boss fights, as it is extremely effective in many of those situations -- in some cases, killing the baddie before it even gets the chance to attack. That Fire wing will render your ship impotent against two particular bosses who both make multiple appearances, though. One particular ship is only vulnerable to the Jump wing, while another is somewhat vulnerable to Jump and very vulnerable to Side.

Third, a number of the game’s basic critters and varmints make a habit of coming at you from any angle. The game has wings that attack to the sides, to the back and to virtually every frontal angle. Making use of the proper wing can make a difficult section become quite simple.

Fortunately for you, the game is very good about supplying the proper wing for any situation, so you don’t have to worry too much about being trapped in the middle of a level with no way to save yourself. If you run into a Jump wing early in a level, odds are that you’ll soon come upon some obstacles that have their weak spots guarded by walls. If you see a Side wing right before the level’s boss, it just might be necessary for victory. Maybe this means that the strategy this game provides isn’t exactly the video gaming equal of rocket science or brain surgery, but it is more than the average game in this genre provides. You can coast through the first few levels on the brute strength of the Fire and Cannon wings, but eventually you will have to learn how play to the strengths of several other wings.

Unfortunately, though, while this game has a few “good” aspects, others can be considered “bad” and “ugly”. What’s bad about this game? Let’s start with the bosses. Most of them follow a similar and quite generic theme: large spaceship with many barricades protecting a weak spot. Your mission is to blast away the barricades to make that weak spot vulnerable while dodging enemy fire. The other bosses are poorly drawn animals (frogs, spiders and snakes -- oh my!) that at least have different attacks than the other 20 or so bosses in the game. Another negative about boss battles is that the most difficult part to survive usually is the first few seconds. You see, as you approach the boss, missiles begin to descend upon you. While easy to dodge at first, they become much tougher to avoid when the boss finally appears and you have to contend with it and its attacks, as well. But then the missiles stop and you just have the boss itself to worry about. To me, that seems to be somewhat of a backwards way of doing things. Way too many battles start out quite challenging and soon become easily beatable.

Also, the music, while not unbearable, isn’t exactly a classic score. While the boss music is well done, the regular level music is just too cheerful for a shooter. And with 30 levels in this game, you’ll be hearing that happy-go-lucky tune for a long time. Way too long of a time....

While the play control isn’t exactly bad, there is one very annoying thing about it -- you can’t move into the top third of the screen. Few things are more frustrating than attempting to dodge enemy fire only to be trapped against an unnecessary invisible ceiling that seals your doom.

And then, we have the ugly. First and foremost, as mentioned before, the graphics in this game are horrible, even by NES standards. From the large, blocky bosses to the plain backgrounds to the unidentifiable enemies, it would be hard to imagine a game more bland. Unless you count the bizarre bullets some of your wings produce. With many wings you’ll be cutting through waves of evil forces with heart-shaped bullets. Why? Is the game sending a subliminal message that the power of love conquers all? Or were the programmers just on some really good drugs?

The length of the game could also be classified as “ugly”. Look at the average shooter. Some only have five levels, but most are somewhere between six and eight. As stated before, this game has 30. Considering the lack of graphical variety, that seems more than a little extreme. Halfway into the game, I was more than ready for it to end -- but had 15 more levels to go. Since all the bosses (except the final one) are repeated throughout the game, wouldn’t it have made sense to cut at least 15 levels from the game and maybe put a bit more effort into improving the appearance of the remaining levels?

So, you could say that B-Wing is somewhat of an “ugly duckling”. While its appearance, length and several other factors are definite black marks against it, there are a few positive things that can be said about it. While they aren’t enough to make this game a truly enjoyable experience, they at least save it from being among the dregs of video gaming society and possibly even make it a worthwhile endeavor for diehard fans of the shoot-em-up genre.


overdrive's avatar
Community review by overdrive (January 26, 2004)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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