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.



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.

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