29/12/2016

THE 2016 VGJUNK REVIEW!

So, 2016 is nearly over, and the general consensus is that it’s been a garbage year from hell. That’s certainly my feeling on it. As well as all the horrible things that have happened in the world generally, on a personal level the last twelve months have consisted of unremitting grimness and misery, to the point that when recently asked if anything good had happened this year the best I could come up with was that Dark Souls 3 came out. And yet, I’ve got enough safety, security and internet access to be sat here whining about it, so maybe things aren’t so bad. I wrote about a bunch of videogames, at least, even if these year’s content was a little truncated. Some of those games were good, some of them were extremely bad, but mostly they were just kind of there – and now we’ll see which were which with the 2016 VGJunk review!
Biggest Waste of a License


Having been granted the rights to the most famous videogame character of all time, the Software Toolworks promptly created Mario’s Early Years: Fun With Letters, a game that had little to do with Super Mario and even less to do with fun. However, even that didn’t feel like as much of a waste as RoboCop 3. Ocean had the chance to work with one of the most iconic action stars of the 1980s, a servant of truth and justice who spends of a lot of his time doing the very videogame-y thing of shooting bad guys with a massive gun. What we got was a leaden crawl through boring environments, some terrible platforming and one of the worst final “boss” encounters I’ve ever seen.

Best Text

A category that always offers up a cavalcade of hilarious mistranslations and twisted perversions of grammar, and 2016 is no different even though it feels like I played fewer poorly-localised Japanese games this year.


For example, here’s the infamous “submarine gun” from Hidden Files: Echoes of JFK. A simple error from “submachine gun,” sure, but one that made me emit an ugly, seal-like bark of laughter when I saw it. I think it’s because it’s said by someone who is supposedly a competent FBI agent and not an overexcited five-year-old on a school trip to the Imperial War Museum.


Potentially the most platformy platformer ever – in terms of sheer number of platforms, at least – Evil Stone included this wonderful level description, even if the level itself wasn’t all that scandalous.


My absolute favourite of this year, however, is from the graphic adventure He-Man Super Adventure, where commanding He-Man to look at his own father results in this withering response. Prince Adam of Eternia is ice-cold.
A special mention goes to Halloween Trick or Treat 2, which resurrected that most gothic of phrases: “spooky dooky.”

Best Character


Zaid, from Alumer and Taito’s arcade sword-em-up Gladiator, was a strong early contender. There’s no deep reasoning behind that choice, it’s just that the description the game gives him engenders a feeling of kinship in me, as I am also a big good-for-nothing fellow. I also played Mega Man 3 this year, a game which saw the introduction of Protoman to the series. I do like Protoman, and he adds a little mystery and intrigue to a game series which had already firmly rammed itself into a specific groove even after just three entries. However, on reflection there’s really only one choice for the position of “best character.”


In a year where I wrote about not one but two Final Fight games, this honour has to go to Mike Haggar, the Mayor of Justice himself. What is it about Haggar that gives him such an enduring appeal? Is it that the concept of a pro-wrestler turned mayor who beats up street gangs like you or I do the laundry is just so resonant, so powerful, that his appeal is timeless? Is it that we all yearn to ruled by politicians who won’t stand by while injustice goes unpunished? Is it the moustache? Who knows, but I do know that everyone loves Haggar. Sorry, Cody.

Best Soundtrack

Speaking of Final Fight, that’s got a good soundtrack, and the first stage theme from Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is one of the all-time classic videogame tracks – it’s been my ringtone for, oh, five years or so now. Not many of the games I played this year had particularly memorable soundtracks, though, so the top honour goes to the one that I’ve been listening to for over twenty years: Mega Man 3.




Is this decision partly down to nostalgia? Yeah, probably. The Protoman theme featured above still manages to make me feel a bit emotional, probably because it reminds me of being a kid and finally finishing MM3, only to realise that meant there was no more Mega Man 3 for me to play. It’s a great soundtrack even when divorced from the the context of my childhood, though, and if you were going to listen to one soundtrack from this year’s VGJunk games then that’d be the one.

Weirdest Concept

You can always rely on British home computer games to be weird as hell, hailing as they do from a time when anyone willing to sit down and learn how to code could create whatever goddamn game they liked. Thus, this year's weirdest game was definitely Nicotine Nightmare on the ZX Spectrum


A tiny man attempts to destroy all cigarettes for the good of the world’s health. He does this by extinguishing giant cigarettes with a watering can while the devil – presumably the patron saint of nicotine – tries to stop him. Then our hero halts all cigarette production by visiting one factory and flipping some levers. Yes, I’d definitely say that this is a weird game.

Biggest Disappointment


An arcade game from Konami about a jungle cat that fights robots is a description that certainly piqued my interest, but that piquing was brutally slapped down the moment I started playing Black Panther. It’s not just that the game’s ugly enough to be prosecuted for crimes against retinas, it’s not just that it gets grindingly difficult to play, it’s that it’s so boring. Did I mention it’s about a jungle cat that fights robots? And yet it’s still insufferably dull.

Most Pleasant Surprise


Of all the games I played this year that I hadn’t heard of before, Data East’s Nitro Ball was the one I had the most unexpected fun with. An inspired melding of top-down shooter and pinball, Nitro Ball offers up a frantic, relentless blast of arcade action that comes packed with great graphics and fun visual details, a good soundtrack and that wonderful feeling of arcade “bigness” that makes it a great choice for some uncomplicated arcade fun.


Just edging out Nitro Ball on the “pleasant surprise” scale is Ninja Gaiden Shadow. The idea of squeezing the tight, precise NES Ninja Gaiden games onto the Game Boy was one that caused me some trepidation, but Tecmo and Natsume did an excellent job: rather than simply stuffing the NES Ryu Hayabusa into a Game Boy game, they reworked the action to make it smaller, simpler but no less Ninja Gaiden-ish. The result is one of the best pure action games on the original Game Boy.

Best Screenshot


It’s probably this star-spangled toad from the “educational” Amiga title All About America. What could be more American than a frog in a waistcoat doing a tap-dance routine? Now that’s patriotism.

Worst Game

Whoo boy, I played some absolutely god-awful shite this year! Where to start? Oh yes, the Game Boy and Game Boy Color, always a good place to go if you’re looking for games that make you regret humanity’s evolution of opposable thumbs. There was Casper, a collection of minigames so dull and dreary it would, appropriately enough, serve as a fitting afterlife for unrepentant sinners. There was Sesame Street Sports, a cynical, barely-there dry fart of a game that made a mockery of its own title by only including one (joyless, grim) sport. Moving up a generation there was the bootleg SNES version of Street Fighter EX, a game that gets some slack for being an unofficial pirate conversion but then loses all that slack by being a borderline-unplayable mess of unfathomable hitboxes and controls so bad you’d get similar results if you dunked your controller in a vat of boiling oil. And who could forget the PS1 nightmare VIP, a horrifying waxwork museum of dreadful CGI, an action game that removed all the action and replaced it with insultingly shallow QTEs?


Even worse than all those was this year’s VGJunk nadir – and possibly the nadir of all videogaming – the Game Boy Color (what a shock) thing Rugrats: Totally Angelica. It represents almost every single way a videogame can be bad, all crammed into a single package. It’s a compilation of utterly abysmal mini-”games,” some of which barely work. The graphics and sound are so bad they make you thankful that the Game Boy can’t emit smells, because if Totally Angelica was an odour it’d be soiled nappies being heated in a microwave. It’s got the cynical stink of a corporate cash-in all over it, combined with the morally unpleasant aspect of applying make-up to a small child. Angelica wears a sweater with swastikas on it. Totally Angelica is, in short, the absolute worst, and it has finally supplanted NSYNC: Get to the Show as the worst game I’ve ever played.

Best Game

Fortunately, I also played some good games to balance out all this crap. Chief amongst them were a trio of Capcom classics. Final Fight set the template for the beat-em-up and did so with style: visceral combat, huge sprites and tons of character. Ghouls ‘n Ghosts might be rightly famous for its punishing difficulty, but its gameplay is so precise and its world so charming that it deserves its classic status. I came close to picking Mega Man 3 to win this category, too. It’s the pinnacle of the NES Mega Man games, with just enough complexity in the gameplay to keep you invested in a longer-than-you’d-expect game that’s always full of surprises (and robot cats that attack with robot fleas).


That said, I’m going with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Normally I’d discount it because I didn’t write a full article about it, but I did write two articles about specific parts of Symphony of the Night and I could write a dozen more, which just goes to show you how great the game is. Not only is it fun to play, this grand adventure of exploration and magical combat, but every moment of the game is endowed with the sense that everyone who worked on it put their heart and soul into its creation. From the core gameplay to the hundreds of tiny details, the expressive graphics and the phenomenal soundtrack, Symphony of the Night is one of those game I will never tire of telling people to go and play.

Obligatory Mention of a Halloween Hidden Object Game


Yes, I played Halloween Trick or Treat 2 this year and yes, I really enjoyed it. Do any of the other games I wrote about this year include a location marked as “Mall and Dracula’s Castle”? No, I didn’t think so.

Favourite Article

As for the article I most enjoyed writing this year, there are quite a few contenders. The aforementioned Halloween Trick or Treat 2 was a good time, and obviously I wouldn’t keep writing about Symphony of the Night if doing so didn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy deep inside. Aside from those, the article about why Silent Hill 4 is actually a comedy was a lot of fun to put together, even if it did mean I had to play through the second half of Silent Hill 4 again. It definitely seemed to resonate with a lot of people, anyway.


But it’s International Superstar Soccer Pro that gave me the most pleasure to ramble on about, combining as it does my twin loves of videogames and football, plus a dollop of nostalgia. The remarkable story of Danish courage, a commentator who could do with a lie down in dark, quiet room and the emergence of a hero called Pingel. It had a bit of everything, really.

Well, that’s it for 2016. I will leave you with the reminder that videogames are, on the whole, pretty great. I enjoy them, anyway, even when they're Z-grade licensed-property misery engines. Maybe my new year’s resolution should be to get out more. Oh well, I wonder what 2017 will bring? More of the same, I shouldn't wonder.

24/12/2016

LABYRINTH RUNNER (ARCADE)

Hello, all. It’s been a while! I won’t bore you with the grim reasons for my absence, but I’m back for the moment and I’ve brought you a festive gift. What could be better, at this most joyous time of year, than an obscure Konami arcade game? Well, lots of things, as it happens. We’ll get to that, though. It’s the 1987 (or possibly 1988) half-baked-em-up Labyrinth Runner, also known as Trick Trap!

Neither title fits the game very well. There aren’t enough tricks and traps for Trick Trap to make sense, and while there are a few mazes the word “labyrinth” implies a scope and grandeur that they most certainly do not possess. I’d have called it “Shootman Jog-Around” but then, as you can tell from the name of this website, I’ve never been good at titles.


You get a little information before the game kicks off, in the form of this image. Evil fiend, dark castle, kidnapped woman. My First Game Plot, got it. That villain looks a little Dracula-esque don’t you think? Maybe I’ve gotten lucky and Labyrinth Runner is actually an ultra-obscure part of the Castlevania mythos. If only there was some more information!


Thanks, Konami. That’s very helpful. So, it’s not Dracula, then? It’s just Devil. No word on whether that’s just a devil or the Judeo-Christian ruler of Hell himself, but we do know that he’s abducted Princes Papaya. Princess Papaya is the ruler of the Vegetaria kingdom, despite papaya being a fruit and not a vegetable. Maybe she’s a puppet ruler placed there after Vegetaria’s annexation by the neighbouring nation of Fruitopia.
The best thing about this image is the “CASTLE” label. Its sheer pointlessness got a laugh out of me, anyway.


The game begins, and we get our first proper look at the hero we’ll be controlling. That’s him on the left, with his trusty shield, his bright green cape and, perhaps surprisingly, his ruddy great gun. I was expecting, I dunno, magic powers – a crossbow at most – but no, he’s got a gun. As he’s mostly green and he hails from the kingdom of Vegetaria, I think I shall call him Cabbage.


So, Labyrinth Runner is a top-down shooter. You move Cabbage around with the joystick, and he can fire in eight directions (although not at the same time, sadly.) He can collect two other weapons as you play, and you can switch between them whenever you like. His shield? Completely useless. He dies in one hit, so the shield must be more of a ceremonial thing. Maybe later there’ll be a stage where he uses it as an impromptu snowboard in order to make a daring mountainside escape, but I highly doubt it.
As for what he’s shooting at, I’m not entirely sure. Some kind of sand-worm, maybe? They pop up from under the ground and spit slow-moving projectiles at you, that much is clear, but beyond that they’re an enigma. They do kinda look like they’re wrapped in tiny duvets, though.


The enemies only get stranger as you progress through the stage. At the bottom-right of the screenshot above, you can see an ambulatory Christmas tree advancing towards Cabbage, ready to slap him about using naught but its pugilistic baubles. Looks like it’s finally fighting back against the War on Christmas. Stranger still are the creatures on the bridge, which appear to be a cross between a crab and a turtle with a human skull perched on top. The Lesser-Spotted Skull-Bearing Crable, if you will. They feel strangely familiar, probably because I’ve fought so many similar creatures in Final Fantasy games over the years.


You’re also beset by a swarm of angry potato people, traitors against the kingdom of Vegetaria. After years of being called vegetables but not deemed “good” enough to count as one of your five a day, they have risen up in rebellion, hoping to carve a better place for themselves in society. It’s a shame none of Cabbage’s weapons are a flamethrower, really. Everyone loves a baked potato.


The three weapons you do get are the default pea-shooter style gun, a laser that fires more slowly but can penetrate multiple enemies and ricochets off walls, and bombs that travel in an arc and cause a large-ish explosion wherever they land – a side-effect of which is that the bombs are useless for hitting enemies right in front of you, because you throw them over the monsters. Your weapons can also be powered up by collecting, erm, power-ups, and as you do so they’ll gain more projectiles in a very helpful spread-shot style.
Here I’m using the laser against the game’s first boss: a pair of Dungeons and Dragons Beholders that have escape their tabletop roleplaying world and found themselves facing a courageous young knight with a laser gun. I would recommend using the laser, too: while your other weapons can also destroy enemy projectiles, the laser is much better at it. Plus, if you miss there’s a chance your laser will bounce off the wall behind the boss and hit them anyway. You can even pretend you meant to do it, like whenever I pot a ball while playing pool.


Stage one is over. The beholders weren’t much of a challenge. Things that are ninety percent eyeball tend to struggle against projectile weapons. Or non-projectile weapons. Or bright sunlight. Anyway, the between-stage map screen promises that many dangers lie ahead, which wasn’t really true of the first stage. The “runner” in Labyrinth Runner’s title is definitely the most accurate part: Cabbage moves at a fair clip and the monsters don’t seems that bothered about stopping him, so you can run past almost everything in the first stage. It’s a very short stage, too, and you can finish it in about thirty seconds if you don’t stop to say “what the hell is that, a walking potato?” like I did.
It was an okay start to the game. Weird enemies aside, there was little to excite the imagination, but the action was smooth and the music was good – not quite the top-tier Konami tunes of something like Haunted Castle, but a solid B. One touch I did like is that you can see the shadow of the castle on the floor while you’re fighting the first boss. Let’s see what stage two holds, shall we?


I was hoping that Labyrinth Runner might kick on from a relatively promising start and turn out to be fairly interesting, but that’s not how things panned out. The second stage is a short series of aggressively grey parapets, linked by bridges and patrolled by giant spiders and non-giant knights – so even the enemies are less interesting than in the first stage. Surely it can’t be that Konami splurged all their creative juices (oh god, what a horrible phrase to use) on the first stage, because while that was pleasant enough it was hardly brimming with exciting new ideas.


Then you reach the boss. This does not take long. The timer for the whole stage is two minutes and I still had well over a minute left when I got here, which goes to show just how short Labyrinth Runner’s stages are.
The boss is a wall. I somehow manages to be even more grey than the stage that preceded it, and that looked like the book of paint samples the Navy uses when it’s choosing a colour for its latest battleship. Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with the concept of fighting a wall. I can think of a few memorable boss battles against walls. The first stage of Contra, for starters, and the Demon Wall from Final Fantasy VII. No, the problem with this wall is the execution. To damage it, you have to hit the gem in its forehead… except you can’t can’t reach that target with the normal shot or the laser. You have to use the bombs, and of course this is a Konami arcade game from the mid-eighties so you lose all your power-ups when you die. It’s the Gradius problem taken to an extreme, because in Gradius you’re reset to the default when you lose a life but if you’re good enough you can still survive and make progress. Here, you’re shit out of luck if you don’t have the bombs, and you have to spend most of the fight waiting for it to slowly spawn some regular enemies that you can shoot and pray they drop the bomb power-up. It’s a colossal pain in the arse, made more aggravating by the fact that boss takes about seven seconds to defeat if you do have the bombs.


Stage three is a maze. According to the map screen, anyway. I’m not sure you can call it a maze when it’s small enough that you could map it out on the back of a postage stamp. I was having trouble parsing where this is supposed to be taking place – it is a maze carved from stone that’s somehow hovering over a well-manicured bowling green? Possibly. It’s not grey, which is nice, but it’s still not much to look at, and Labyrinth Runner in general lacks the graphical flair you might usually associate with Konami’s arcade game. It’s all just a bit bit boring, frankly.
At least the enemies are a little more interesting here than in the last stage. Demonic whelks and the titular blob from A Boy and His Blob are a step up from the tired concept that is giant spiders (unless you’re playing an EDF game, in which case giant spiders are great). Unfortunately that ice cream is not an enemy, it’s an item you can collect for points. An enemy that’s nothing more than a man-sized cone of soft-serve would have been very appealing to me.


The exit seems to be randomly placed in one of several spots, which I suppose is at least mildly interesting, although the idea of someone wanting to play Labyrinth Runner more than once is a little hard to believe. Oh, and this stage has no boss, either. Konami wouldn’t want you getting too excited after such a thrilling maze, after all.


Oh look, another maze. I think this is actually part of the same stage, which is why there wasn’t a boss. It’s far more blue than the previous maze but no more interesting. “Shrieking, giant-winged bat-head” is a good look for an enemy that haunts an underground catacomb, but other than that it’s basically the same as the last maze.
The most notable thing about the mazes is that they’re so much easier than the rest of the game. The narrow corridors mean there are fewer directions the enemies can attack you from, and if you’ve picked up even one of the weapon power-ups your shots will spread out enough to fill the entire path ahead of you. It makes it feel like you’re walking down the pathways with a large broom simply sweeping the monsters aside as you survey the maze for the thirty seconds or so it takes to spot the exit.


This time there is a boss, and it’s a distant relation of Krang from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I appreciate a horrible blobby tentacle monster that looks like someone drew a face on a particularly disgusting medical diagram as much as the next man, but I’m struggling to remember anything about this battle. I’ll hazard a guess and say that the boss fired some projectiles at me, but I avoided those projectiles and shot the boss with my laser gun. That must be what happened. If it had been different, I would have remembered it.


Next up is the seldom-enjoyable mine cart stage. Are there any good mine cart stages? The ones from Donkey Kong Country aren’t bad, I suppose. They’re very tense, certainly. Feel free to let me know your favourite mine cart stages, maybe I’ll remember one I enjoyed.
I doubt anyone will submit Labyrinth Runner’s mine cart stage as a particular favourite, because it’s pretty terrible. The actually rolling around part is fine, it's just like the regular stages except you’ve got no control over your movements while you’re fighting the monsters. The problem comes when you’re forced to make a decision about what track you want to ride. You can switch between them at junctions, but some of them are dead-ends that result in unavoidable death. If you’re on the wrong track, tough luck, you’ve just lost a life. Oh, and you only get five continues, so if you want to make it past this stage you have to basically memorise the layout of the tracks, or cheat. I did one of those things. I’m sure you can figure out which. If I wanted to spend my time doing lots of boring memorisation and still not coming out of it with much reward, I’d go back and re-do my physics A-Level.


Yes, let’s. That would be a nice change of pace.


The final stage is the clearly-labelled castle itself, the front gate guarded by another pair of bosses that can only be damaged by the bomb weapon. The bosses appear to be half man, half spark plug but somehow less cool than Spark Man. There’s a conga line of strange humanoid creatures that you can kill if you need to collect the bomb weapon – and after the frustrating tedium of the mine cart stage, you probably will – and they might even drop one of the lightning icons that gives you a screen-clearing smart bomb.


Here’s the castle’s… foyer? Lobby? Whatever, it’s this room, where weird soldiers that look like phone books with heads on top repeatedly spawn and chase you around the room. I killed quite a lot of them, using the ruined pillars to funnel them into the path of my projectiles, but nothing much was happening, so I killed a few more. “Maybe it’s some kind of puzzle,” I thought to myself. The geometry of the room and the symbols on the floor and walls have sort of a “videogame puzzle” look to them, don’t you think? But no, they didn’t seem to do anything, so I shot some more monsters. Then I realised I could walk through the doors at the top of the screen and just, like, leave. I’m not sure what it says about me that my first instinct was “this problem must be solved through mass slaughter.” That I’ve played too many videogames, probably.


Just beyond lies this room that only avoids being totally bland by having the Blockbusters board for a floor. It’s also home to the game’s best enemies: fat, turd-like clouds that wear sunglasses and attack by sucking on big cigars and blowing smoke at Cabbage. They’re Slimer from Ghostbusters, if he was less into food and more into emphysema, and I kinda love them.


There’s also a giant centipede to fight. You’ve got to shoot it in its glowing weak point – in this case it’s the arse, traditionally the most vulnerable area of all insects. Unfortunately for the centipede it can only attack by running into our hero, so the fight quickly devolves into Cabbage running in a circle, chasing the boss’ backside while the boss chases Cabbage, forming a perfect loop of extremely forgettable gameplay.


At long last, it’s the game’s final boss! I say “at long last”, it took me less than fifteen minutes to reach this point but it feels like so much longer. The boss is a very angry meatball, which makes sense. You’d expect meat to be the natural enemy of a place called Vegetaria. The boss has large smashing fists, although he doesn’t really use them, electing instead to throw what are either green pumpkins or large bell peppers at our hero. Actually, no. On closer inspection they appear to be unlit green candles, a shade of green that implies they’re scented like lime jelly.


Oh, it’s a robot meatball. Of course. Is this what Twinbee looks like underneath its external shell? They’ve got the same arms, after all.


After applying enough lasers to the boss’ exposed core it will explode, freeing Princess Papaya who was right there the whole time, apparently. She’s so pleased to see Cabbage that she bestows upon him a shower of human hearts, which she has developed a taste for during her time as a captive of the evil Meat Empire.


And that’s it. The game closes with a picture of Cabbage – who is apparently a prince, or possibly the late Prince himself – and Papaya, along with a text epilogue that states they’ve got to travel back to their kingdom and that “another long journey has begun.” For a moment my blood ran cold at the prospect of Labyrinth Runner having a second loop, but I’m happy to report that it doesn’t and it really is over.
Labyrinth Runner started out looking like it might be okay but gradually got worse and worse as it went on, so if nothing else it’s a good metaphor for 2016. There’s just no sparkle to it, no joie de vivre and certainly nothing like the level of quality Konami were capable of releasing at the time. It’s a competent if uninspired gameplay base, smothered by layers of boring scenery and poor design decision, the mine cart stage being the mouldy, fluff-encrusted cherry on top of the cake. It’s not truly awful, and I’d even say it’s more fun to play than Black Panther or Battlantis, but it’s only real use is as a cure for insomnia. Oh well, merry Christmas, I guess. At least the soundtrack was okay.

18/11/2016

SACHEN'S UNLICENSED NES GAME COVERS

Sachen. Thin Chen Enterprises. Joy Van. A Taiwanese company know by many names, but know for one thing: putting out dozens of unlicensed games, mostly for the NES and Famicom. Some of their games are bad, some of them are very bad and one of them has the wonderful title Worm Visitor. Good job coming up with a name that makes it sound like a game about what happens to your corpse once it’s buried, Sachen. Anyway, today’s article isn’t about any one of their games, because then I’d have to play through a Sachen game, so instead here’s a look at some of their game’s cover art. Hopefully I can come up with plenty of synonyms for “amateurish.”
Little Red Hood


So, not a game about the childhood years of the Batman villain, then? No, it’s about Little Red Riding Hood. It’s a cover made from clip-art, said clip-art being carefully composed to make it look like Red Riding Hood is kicking a goblin right up the arse. She looks like she’s having a rare old time, too. Are we seeing the origin story of B.B. Hood from Darkstalkers here? It’s a short step from kicking goblins to mowing down werewolves with an uzi, or at least it will be when I finally make my own RPG. Joke's on Red, that goblin behind her is about to get her with his invisible garotte.
Also, don’t overlook that weird neckless dog in the background, biting another goblin on the rump. The backside is a goblin’s weak point, apparently. Speaking of rear ends, cover the front end of that dog up and tell me you’re not now looking at the back end of a horse.

Pipe V


“Who is this year’s champion plumber” asks the game’s tagline… except there’s no question mark, so I guess it’s not a question and we’re being told that someone called Who is this year’s champion plumber. Congratulations, Who. I hope you’ve got a nice spot in your house to display your Golden U-Bend trophy. I’m going to assume that the deformed homunculus on the left of the screen isn’t Who, because there’s no way he’s a good enough plumber to win a championship. His oversized apron is a tripping hazard, his spanners are too small and all the pipes in the background are spraying water everywhere. No, he’s the regular, normal kind of useless plumber.

Pipemania


This is the same game as Pipe V, but renamed for the Australian market and given a new piece of cover of art. So, now we get to see the lost Mario Brother slowly drowning to death. Now, I’m not marketing executive – I have a soul, for starters – but I have to think that this image will do little to lure in prospective players. If my kid saw Pipemania and said “daddy, that’s the game I want!” I’d get the phone book out and start circling a few numbers for child therapists.

Double Strike


If you’re going to have your box art be a big picture of a man’s face, what’s the best angle to draw them from? Why, so you can see right up their nose, of course! It really hammers home the feeling that you’re looking at someone laying in a field, staring up at a nearby air show while he waits for the peyote to kick in.

Metal Fighter


Oh good, here comes the peyote now. What the bloody hell is going on here? Are these thing fighting? Are they even made of metal? That thing at the bottom appears to have seas anemones for hands, and they’re not made of metal. The top, erm, thing is presumably the metal fighter of the title, looking as it does like T-Bob from M.A.S.K. who was at least made of metal even if he wasn’t much of a fighter. I short, I don’t have a sodding clue what’s going on here apart from very poorly placed typography.

Pyramid


Hey, this one’s not too bad! I could see it being the cover of an officially licensed game, and unlike Metal Fighter the picture of a female pharaoh actually has something to do with the title of the game. I mean, it’s not a good picture. It looks too much like the d├ęcor in a shabby casino for that, but it’s appropriate and when it comes to the covers of Sachen games that really is the best you can hope for.

Silent Assault


It doesn’t looks very silent. Bombs tend to be quite loud.
I’ve written all about Silent Assault, and it might sound scarcely believable but this cover art is somehow less ugly than the game itself. You wouldn’t think much could be worse than a life-sized version of those shitty Chinese action figures from Poundland, the ones with names like “USA GI HERO FORCE,” but at least this artwork isn’t composed entirely in garish neon tones. Plus, I like that the soldier is going into battle with his medals pinned to his chest. He single-handedly repulsed the Glorganoid invasion fleet to get that medal, dammit, and he’s going to wear it all the god damned time. I bet he sleeps with it pinned to his pyjamas. Its presence comforts him, distracting the soldier from from the horror that is his own messed-up face. His head looks like a carrot with human features crudely carved into it, an effect heightened by the foliage growing on his helmet. However, if you think this face looks bad, check out the alternate cover to Silent Assault.


Ha ha ha. Hahahaha! Incredible! He’s part human killing machine, part gurning champion and, if his independently-swivelling eyeballs are anything to go by, part chameleon. His sergeant ordered him to put on his war face, but he misunderstood and tried to capture the full horror, savagery and pointless waste of human life of war in one facial expression. He failed, clearly. The last time I saw a facial expression like that was when I tried to explain the plot of the entire Metal Gear series to a friend.

Tagin’ Dragon


I haven’t got a clue what “Tagin’ Dragon” is supposed to mean. Maybe he’s really into Moroccan cooking and it’s supposed to be Tagine Dragon.
Most videogames are pretty odd when you stop and think about them, but while “Italian plumber jumps on mushrooms” and “blue hedgehog runs fast, fights Teddy Roosevelt” are no more conceptually bizarre than “lounging dragon nibbles the tail of another, transparent dragon” there’s something about Tagin’ Dragon’s cover that’s weirding me out. Perhaps it’s the somewhat sensual way the dragon is acting, the way it’s gently tickling its mouth with the other dragon’s tail while staring directly at the viewer. He likes it when you watch.

Colorful Dragon


Well, okay, green is a colour, I guess? I think it’s more likely to mean “colourful” in the same way you might say someone has a “colourful past.” This dragon is a wrong ‘un, is what I mean. He’s probably been arrested a few time, did a bit of low-level dealing, that kind of thing. As punishment, he’s been trapped inside an Alchemy Gothic picture frame.

Jovial Race


It would be a damned sight easier to believe this was a jovial race if you hadn’t drawn this car with a grille that looks like razor-sharp teeth, Sachen. Stephen King’s Christine didn’t undergo the same inappropriate transition from adult material to kid-friendly cartoon that RoboCop and Rambo did, but thanks to this cover we now know what it’d look like if it had.
I can’t fault the game’s title, though. It’s like Mario Kart in an alternate universe where blue shells were never added to the game. Jovial Race is a name that’s almost as endearingly daft as Worm Visitor, and as such it deserves to be on a better game.

Hell Fighter


Hell Fighter is another game I’ve written all about before, so I already know that despite the promises of this cover art it’s not the story of a male stripper whose hand spontaneously transforms into a ghostly skull. I know, I know, I’m just as disappointed as you are. It’s a story that writes itself, too: stripper accidentally reads aloud from a foul grimoire of forbidden magic while researching sweet new dance moves and the spirit of a long-dead necromancer attaches itself to his hand. The stripper worries that this will ruin his career because his audience wants to see oily pecs and not grim reminders of their own mortality. The necromancer is furious that he cannot continue his sinister designs on the world of the living. But then, the skull and the stripper find that their different strengths make them a great team! The stripper helps the necromancer loosen up and have a good time, the necromancer teaches the stripper how to use black magic to increase his tips, and they become the best of friends. It’s the Magic Mike sequel the world is crying out for, so it’s with a heavy heart that I must reiterate that’s not what Hell Fighter is about.

2-in-1 Tough Cop / Super Tough Cop


Hey, I recognise this art style: it’s clearly a rip-off of Susumu Matsushita, the artist probably best known for their Famitsu magazine covers and the artwork for Capcom’s Maximo games. Whether this is merely a stylistic copy or a poor tracing of a Matsushita original is something I have been unable to determine.

Chinese Checkers


I’ve never played Chinese checkers, and now that I know it involves novelty condoms I probably never will.

Strategist


Ah yes, Strategist: the game where you pick a side in the war between the military and the Formula 1 drivers and lead your chosen faction to victory! The F1 drivers have speed on their side, but the military have the guns and tanks and vast numbers of infantry. Unless the war is being fought over lap times at Silverstone, I think this is going to be a fairly one-sided conflict.
Okay, not really. Strategist is actually a bundle of two poker games, one war-themed and one racing-themed. Still, the cover provides us with a fine selection of bizarre attempts at drawing a human face. The racers get off lightly because they’re mostly wearing helmets, but the soldiers? Not so much. You’ve got a soldier in the middle who’s been issued a rifle despite having no eyes. Immediately to the right of him is a man with the face of a puppet from an “edgy” off-Broadway show, but best of all is the bloke in the officer’s hat, his face a cubist nightmare of nonsensical anatomy. Go on, try to figure out the placement of his eyes if that’s where his sunglasses sit.

Street Heroes


More art theft on the cover of the fighting game Street Heroes, with the central hero being traced directly from Boris Vallejo’s picture “The Eternal Champion.” He’s by far the least interesting of the Street Heroes, mind you. Who wants to hear about the adventures of Generic Cape-Wearing Hero when the Tinfoil Crusader and Egyptian Vega are much more exciting prospects? They appear to have the same face, so maybe they’re twin brothers forced into gladiatorial combat against their will. How thrilling! Other than that, the lady in the bikini’s fairly dull, but it’s nice to see a Scooby Doo villain appearing in the background.

Thunder Blaster Man


Now for a cover that combines copyright infringement with graphic design so brutally unappealing that the addition of Comic Sans could only improve it with Thunder Blaster Man, a game that stars an unlicensed version of a beloved videogame hero. If you can’t figure out who that hero is, I’ll give you a clue: this game is also known by the impressively ballsy title of Rocman X.
Yes, it’s X from the Megaman X series, but in a different timeline where his body was damaged in his latest battle with Sigma but the only replacement parts he could find were Lego Bionicle pieces and coloured craft paper. Also he blasts thunder, I guess, all while trapped in what seems to be a swirling vortex of existential misery. That said, I don't think this is even the most garish outfit that X has ever worn.

Arctic Adventure


“Seal clubbing” is transformed into “seal, clubbing” in Arctic Adventure, and I don’t mean the Kiss From a Rose singer is dancing the night away at a trendy discotheque. No, the seals have risen up and turned the very instruments of their destruction again any who would encroach upon their domain, although sadly they have been consumed by their bloodlust and are attacking innocent penguins. Unless the penguin stole that huge diamond and large seals are what passes for the local constabulary in the Arctic. And yes, I know they look more like walruses but the back of Arctic Adventure’s box definitively states that they’re seals, and if you can’t trust the box blurb on an unlicensed Taiwanese NES game then we are in a very sorry state as a society.

Jurassic Boy


Rolling around at the speed of sound and displaying a now scientifically-inaccurate lack of feathers, it’s Sonic the Hedgehog if he was was a pink dinosaur. Yeah, sure, why not. It makes about as much sense as a blue hedgehog. More so, even. Surely dinosaurs are faster than hedgehogs? I mean, I’ve never heard of a dinosaur being run over by a car while trying to cross the road, have you? I rest my case.

Lucky Bingo


Finally for today, something that immediately became one of my favourite ever covers the second I laid eyes on it. I feel enriched in body and soul just for having seen it. Is this what they mean when they say something’s beyond parody? There isn’t really anything you can say about a bingo game being promoted by a robotic donkey with a police siren on its head vomiting out a stream of number sevens. Well, there are phrases like “wow” and “incredible” and “find me the number for a tattoo parlour, I need to make an urgent appointment,” but nothing that can make the insanity of the piece any more apparent. Bless you, Chrome Donkey, for providing a shining light amidst the darkness of the world. I’m still not going to play an unlicensed NES bingo game, though.

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