Nostalgia Lane: Turtles in Time (SNES)

For all my kids know of the Super Nintendo System, it’s pretty much two games: Super Mario World and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time. This is because they’re quite not old enough for the complexity of the other titles’ controls (but they’re getting better!), so these one- or two-button games are perfect for them on the platform. And frankly, Turtles keeps winning out as a crowd favorite.

I can’t blame them; it’s one of my favorite games on the SNES as well. Has been since the mid-90s. After the brutally tough TMNT game on the original NES (I was never aware of the sequel on that console), getting a Turtles game that was both fun and accessible was a revelation.

At its core, Turtles in Time is a streamlined beat-em-up that delivers more on visuals than on mastering any real martial arts. If you can jam on a button real fast, you have a good chance of winning. But the colorful figures, the expressive animation, the choice of four Turtles to play, the fun levels, some vocal clips, and the kickin’ music all come together to create a party-like atmosphere of a game. It’s just sheer fun to play with others.

Plus, there’s time travel, as the title implies. For my taste, it comes too far into the game (and as far as I know, there’s no save states, so every time you have to start over), but at least it’s there.

And even though you can be a simple button-masher, Turtles in Time has more to offer for those looking to master its gameplay. Various moves can be performed like jump kicks and (my favorite) grabbing an enemy and slamming them back and forth on the ground, Hulk-style. You can even fling a character at the “camera,” thanks to Mode 7 graphics, which actually is the only way to beat Shredder in the Technodrome (see above picture).

Even though the environment isn’t complicated to traverse as in a platformer, there are usually a lot of elements with which to interact. Barrels can be hit to explode (naturally), pizza picked up to be eaten, your character can fall into sewer holes and moan about it, and so on. The choice of Turtle (and weapon) that you pick changes things up a little too — I prefer Donatello for his long reach with the bo staff, but my one son always picks Raphael for his really quick melee attacks with the sai.

Turtles in Time is also polished to a T, and it really shows. It looks, sounds, and performs great all the way through, and the fact that it doesn’t require a huge manual to know how to play it means that just about anyone can pick it up to enjoy. It’s a real shame that this wasn’t included on the Classic SNES, but at least I have a physical cartridge (which is somewhat expensive to buy these days) and another copy on my Retropi, so we’ll keep on playing it in my household for years to come.

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Nostalgia Lane: Age of Empires II

I clearly recall visiting my family in Indiana in fall of 1999 while clutching a game manual in my hands. Just the day before, I had picked up a copy of the new Age of Empires II, and it was killing me to not be able to play for a few days (although family visitation was good and all that). So resolved to study the manual cover-to-cover as a balm to sooth my anxiety.

The late 1990s and early 2000s were my RTS period, and what a glorious era that was. There were so many of those games out by then, but then along came Microsoft and there went a few months of my life, woosh, sucked right into Age of Empires II.

Coming from a background playing the Civilization games, I was perfectly primed to receive AoE2 with open arms. It was kind of a micro-civilization fantasy simulator, where you could slap together various cultures on a map and then race to build up your kingdom before raising armies to send out conquering forces.

The hook of this game was that each of the 13 civilizations would progress through four ages, from the Dark Age to the Renaissance, with each successive age providing new building and troop options. So you always had to balance building up your current age while putting aside some resources to move on to the next one. Fall behind, and the other civs with their advanced technology could end up steamrolling you.

Age of Empires II was so polished and played so smoothly that I held it up as the gold standard to similar games afterward. It was all of the little things that made this enjoyable, including sending peasants out to forage bushes for food to creating crazy armies of troops to see how they’d fare against other civs. Want a rank of primitive musketeers to fight war elephants? This was the game for you.

It cut out the turn-by-turn slowness of Civilization to give more of the flavor of progression and focus more on war and conquest. I was glad to hear that it got an HD remake a few years back — and a few new expansions, it looks like! — and I’m definitely psyched to hear that Age of Empires IV is in the works. The third game was enjoyable, but its New World focus felt very different than the other entries. I’m looking forward to heading back to the classic structure of civilization- and era-jumping.

7 of my favorite tower defense games

I’ve gotten the impression that tower defense games aren’t that respected in either games media or among more “serious” gamers, but for me, I’ve always loved them. They’re a favorite of mine, in fact, especially on mobile devices. Tower defense is a relaxing puzzle of sorts that combines warfare, mazes, and defensive strategy with that satisfying bubble wrap “popping” of enemy units. I often play a round or two at the end of the day, as these games help lull me into sleep (I know that sounds bad, but it more speaks to its relaxing qualities).

Today, I wanted to share my six favorite tower defense titles to date:

1. Desktop Tower Defense

This might have been one of the first tower defense games I ever played, and to date, it’s one of my wife’s most-played video games ever. There are a lot of different types of tower defense titles, and this one falls into the “use towers to make your own maze” category — with hand-drawn towers and units. I eventually fell out of like with this because it ascribed to the “keep giving mobs more and more health until they’re raid bosses” design, but it was a lot of fun for a good long time.

2. Bloons

The Bloons series worked so well because balloons are great fun to pop, and moreso if you’re using silly monkey towers to do it. It’s fast, there are tons of types of “bloons” that zip by, and the popping of each one releases endorphins in my system.

3. Kingdom and Frontier Rush

Absolutely wonderful titles with great art, a huge variety of towers and upgrade paths, and enemy types. Plus the voices ascribed to units gave them a lot of personality, and this was the first tower defense game that I played with hero units. I probably played Frontier Rush through at least a dozen times.

4. Dungeon Warfare

Nobody seems to talk about this gritty title, which is an incredible shame. It’s like Dungeon Keeper meets tower defense, and there’s a massive array of towers, traps, enemies, maps, and upgrades. So so so much replayability here.

5. Creeps

Creeps might not have been the most original tower defense game of all time, but it gets a nod on this list for its imaginative art and premise — that you’re trying to stop nightmares from getting to a kid in bed.

6. Crazy Kings

Yes, this has energy timers and other F2P elements, but I’m really keen on this game because it’s got so much to do, has fun art, has all sorts of gameplay modes, and there is never a lack of things to do. I probably play this now more than any other.

7. Plants vs. Zombies

This is more lane defense than a strict tower defense game, but there’s so much overlap that who cares. I liked the first game way more than the sequel, and had a blast with all of the hilarious plants and zombies on the field. Ramping up each map got old after a while, as did some of the restrictions on later levels, but it was a huge amount of fun while it lasted.

Nostalgia Lane: Majesty: The Fantasy Kingdom Sim

We all have those beloved video games that, no matter how old they get, we still take out for a spin every year or two because it’s simply our favorite. Chrono Trigger is one of those games for me, but another one is a 2000 real-time strategy game that, to this day, entertains me.

On the surface, Majesty (the fantasy kingdom sim) sounds like a very generic RTS: You build up a fantasy kingdom, earn money, pump out troops, conquer foes, win levels. Yet the game contained a big twist that hadn’t really been done before. You see, you can’t control your units, you can only influence them.

While players get control over their buildings and the options they contain, once a particular hero is created, it operates independently of the player’s direction. Rangers tend to go out and explore the map, Rogues will look for easy gold to plunder, Gnomes will help build structures, and so on. They’ll fight if they think they can win or have other helpful troops around, they’ll buy their own armor (which you supply via shops) and gear, and they’ll bring back money for you to tax for further expansion. It’s like creating your own little MMORPG world and seeing how it unfolds.

It’s strange, but this twist took the tired genre and made it special. It becomes easy to see units as having their own personalities (which is further helped by memorable and sometimes-hilarious voice acting and a huge roster of names). I never failed to cheer on units that leveled up high, got decked out in gear, and finally worked up the courage to take out an enemy castle.

Majesty really paid special attention to every element of the game. Between stages, a Sean Connery-sounding adviser briefs you on the next level. Each building has its own animations, and there’s a certain pride in seeing a kingdom come into its own with tax collectors, guard towers, and even cemeteries (which keep track of all of your deceased heroes).

So if you can’t control units, does the game get boring? Not at all! You kind of serve as a “quest giver” for your heroes, plopping down flags at certain locations to encourage them to explore or plunder (of course, you have to add gold as a reward, and the more gold you put, the more heroes are going to be attracted by it). Judicious use of flags is essential in overcoming levels.

Plus, there is a strategy to building placement and upgrades. Some buildings, when constructed, mean that you can’t create another type (for instance, Dwarves and Elves hate each other, so you can only go with one or the other). Sometimes buildings offer you a choice of two different heroes, and you can only have four or five heroes per building.

The end result of all of this is a relaxing, charming, and engaging game with a lot of personality. Sure, the maps weren’t much to speak of (just flat fields in various colors), but it did the job. Oh! And the music was fan-freaking-tastic. Loved it.

There was one expansion that added a number of quests in the far north, and unfortunately, that’s all we got. There are 33 quests/maps in total, and a few years ago the game was repackaged with higher resolutions as Majesty Gold (which is also available on GOG.com). I was really excited when Majesty 2 was announced, but it turned out to be a dud with zero personality and fun — the opposite of what made the first game so great. I highly recommend the first to anyone who would like a RTS with a little free will mixed in.

Nostalgia Lane: GCE Game Time Wrist Watch

Today I want to talk about watches.

No, I don’t wear a watch. Haven’t since, oh, freshman year of college? 1994? I got sick of the tan line and started using cell phones and other devices to keep time. But before that, I had a long string of neat watches, especially in the ’80s.

Don’t know what it was about the era, but the ’80s had incredibly cool watches, especially if you were a kid. I had watches that transformed into robots (I actually still have the robot part of one sans strap), several of the almighty calculator watches, a watch that had a radio (that’s something that played music before MP3 players, kids), one super awesome watch that did so much that I’m going to have to write a separate article on it, and one or two game watches.

I actually lusted over game watches. Video games that you always had on you? Tiny? Cool? Yeah, sign me up. The Tetris, Zelda, and Pac-Man watches in particular looked incredibly cool, and I had limited amounts of fun with the Batman watch when a friend let me try it.

But in sixth grade I briefly owned perhaps one of the greatest game watches — the GCE Game Time Watch. There’s a story that goes with this as well.

So the GCE is a really novel little piece of hardware. By using a field of LCD dots and top-and-bottom parentheses, the designers were able to fit four fun and challenging games on it:

  • A dodging game where you had to scoot around oncoming walls
  • A skeet shooting game where you shot at an angle at a disc
  • Mini-Space Invaders
  • Mini-Breakout

The variety and sheer difference between these game modes really set it apart from a lot of other watches at the time — and it was made in 1982, which was pretty early for watch game technology to be pulling this stuff off.

So the story goes that one of my friends had the GCE in sixth grade (which puts it around 1986-7) and offered to sell it to me for $10. I agreed, went home and got the money, but when I came back to school the next day, he had balked. However, his mom heard about this and forced him to sell it, saying that he had to honor his word. To this day, I kind of feel bad that I went ahead with the purchase knowing that he wanted out of it, but I guess I got mine shortly thereafter.

The kicker to this tale is that after a few days of enjoying my nifty game watch, I ruined it. What happened was that I was falling asleep one night and my fingers found a little nub in my bed, like an eraser. I didn’t think about it at all, I just popped it in my mouth and chewed it up. I think I was doing stuff like that back then, but man, I kicked myself so hard the next day because this ended up being one of the control buttons for the watch… a watch which was now useless. Maybe I threw it out? I don’t remember.

I’ve thought of trying to track one of these down for the glow of nostalgia ownership, but let’s be real — I wouldn’t wear it, I’d play it for about two minutes, and then I’d give it to my kid. And he’s already got a watch that plays better games than my computer did in 1994, so that would be a waste.

Ranking all of the video game consoles I’ve owned from worst to best

controller

It’s weird to me how cool the original NES controller still looks. Simple, sleek, and future-y.

For most of my life, I’ve been a computer gamer. Computers simply offered me more titles and more of the types of games that I liked, including RPGs, strategy, adventure, and simulators. Yet I wasn’t that picky as a kid and stuck my nose up at consoles; a game was a game, in my book. So while I certainly haven’t owned a lot of consoles over the years, and the last mainstream one I got was the Wii, I’ve managed to rack up about eight systems (not including handhelds) over the years. Thought about ranking them from best to worst, so here we go!

Best: Super Nintendo

Man, I was and am still in love with this system. It was mind-blowing at the time of its release, with way better-looking games than the NES — and ones that played a lot better, too. The controller felt great, the colors popped, and the library of titles contained so many classics, including Super Castlevania IV, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario World, StarFox, Turtles in Time, and Contra III. Ever since we got it back in 1990 or 91, it remained the console fixture in our parents’ basement. I think there’s still an SNES there to this day, although I have a few decks and a handheld version at my house as well.

PlayStation

For most of my college years I went without a console, but when Final Fantasy VII came out I couldn’t stand not being on board with the fun. So one summer I got the PlayStation and was sucked into 3D gaming — grainy and low-performance though it was. So many terrific titles on that system: Chrono Cross, Silent Hill, Resident Evil 2, Castlevania Symphony of the Night. Playing video games on discs instead of cartridges felt really futuristic — if flimsy — and I will never forget the pain of managing save spots on those little memory cards.

Atari 2600

You never forget your first, and the Atari 2600 was mine. We played this wood-laminated system to death during the ’80s, enjoying it far past the video game crash of 1983. Graphics were horrible, sure, but clever designers still managed to make some wonderfully addictive games. I sunk so many hours into shooting asteroids and navigating Ms. Pac-Man’s maze.

PlayStation 2

I was initially so excited for the PS2 after having lived with the original system for several years, but for whatever reason the PlayStation 2 didn’t quite meet the same awesome factor as the first. Sure, the graphics were better and the system had taken a technological jump forward, but I found myself really desperate for good games and (for the first year or two) not finding many. I have vivid memories of blowing $50 in a game every week for a while, only to be dissatisfied with it a couple hours after taking it out of its packaging.

Gamecube

I think the Gamecube deserves a lot more credit than it got. We even still own one, to play Mario Kart Double Dash on our TV, since that was my wife’s favorite back in the day. The system looked a little weird and the small discs felt like they were being cute at the expense of having enough storage space. But I really enjoyed the controller and there were some memorable titles, including Eternal Darkness.

Wii

The Wii always felt like a party console rather than something you’d ever seriously game on. I only ever played Wii Sports, Guitar Hero, and the Dance Party games on it. It’s intuitive for a pick-up-and-play crowd, but I didn’t like the wiimote controller and how many batteries I had to use for it. I did use this system for an exercise program a while back, which was interesting if ineffective.

Nintendo 64

It seems like a lot of people sport fond memories for this system, but for me it was a massive let-down after the SNES. The 3D that the N64 pumped out looked like butt — crude polygon tushies. I couldn’t even bear to play Super Mario 64 or Zelda or any of the “classics” that people rave about. It did get some play in our youth room for Goldeneye and Perfect Dark, which were — to be fair — enjoyable multiplayer shooters. But EGADS was that one of the worst controllers I’ve ever held.

Worst: Ouya

And then we get to the bottom of my personal console barrel. I briefly got excited about this crowdfunded console and convinced my family to buy one for me for my birthday. Now it sits in my closet, a hidden monument to dashed dreams, pointless design, and wasted money. I should’ve known better.

Nostalgia Lane: 4 bizarre shareware titles from the 90s

 

keen1. Commander Keen

PCs were never the platforming powerhouse that consoles were, and we mostly had to go to shareware to find decent substitutes for Super Mario Bros., etc. Commander Keen was a particularly good one, I recall, as it boasted a lot of personality as you played as an imaginative kid going up against space aliens and other bizarre enemies.

Probably my favorite detail is if you left Keen alone, he’d eventually start tapping his foot and going through other annoyed animations.  I can get it on Steam now and I probably should.

jill2. Jill of the Jungle

Jill was kind of the Tarzan contemporary who explored a jungle in a somewhat non-linear fashion. Lots of platforming and tricky jumps, along with some fighting against oversized ants and the like. I thought the animation here was pretty impressive for the time, especially with everything Jill had to do. Although I always thought that her lack of pants  meant that she must have had scratched up legs.

wolf3. Wolfenstein 3-D

Everyone knows Wolfenstein, although not as many remember its predecessor (a top-down stealth game that I played on a friend’s Amiga) or how it used to be segmented into different episodes. There was an episode, the second I think, that was more about zombies. I just loved the fluid, non-stop action, the secrets, and feeling like a Rambo going up against Hitler.

bio4. Bio Menace

OK, I admit that I remember nothing from this game itself, but when I saw this splash screen I was awash in “oh yeaaaaah.” Because how wonderfully cheesy is this? I think it’s the hero’s ‘stache and mullet that really sells it.