The Sega Mega Modem

 

This article is brought to you by the legendary Greg Sewart of classic EGM fame. He currently produces the outstanding video series, Generation-16 on Youtube, and co-hosts the Player One Podcast with Chris Johnston, Phil Theobold, and Ethan Einhorn.

 

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The modem itself. You can see the microphone on the top-left of the unit.

 

RELEASE DATE: 11/03/90 – (JP)

                                       1991 – (JP, with Game Toshokan)

 

Sega’s often leaped before looking, taking chances on bleeding edge technology before it’s ready for prime time. The Mega Modem represents one such occasion.

Released on November 3, 1990, the Mega Modem launched in Japan for 9800 yen or approximately $75 US dollars. With this compact little device plugged into the 21-pin expansion port on the back of the Mega Drive, you were ready to play head-to-head against gamers across town on a screaming 2400 bps!

 

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An already sexy system looks even sexier with this neat little gadget hooked to the back.

 

Early adopters had three games to choose from at launch. Sega’s own CyberBall (a port of the classic Atari arcade football game), and from Sunsoft, Tel-Tel Mahjong and Tel-Tel Stadium. The first was, of course, a mahjong game, while the second was a kind of baseball management simulator.

Ever since the late ‘70s there was a drive to turn home game consoles into something more. To make them the centerpiece of a family-friendly computer – something Mom and Dad could use to do their banking or check stock prices. Sega was no different, and the Mega Modem was a key piece in its attempt to do something like this with the Mega Drive.

 

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The “anser” to all your gaming and banking needs.

 

The Mega Anser (yes, that’s the correct spelling) was banking software that users could buy as a standalone cartridge, or as part of a suite of hardware that included a printer and 10-key pad to make navigation easier. The entire bundle retailed for 72,800 yen, or approximately $560 USD. Other productivity cartridges were released for the system as well, including software for the Bank of Nagoya, the Bank of Osaka, and Sumimoto Life Insurance.

 

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Schematic for the Mega Anser hardware peripherals.

 

The biggest draw for gamers when it came to the Mega Modem was the Sega Game Toshokan (Sega Game Library) cartridge and the MegaNet service. A subscription to MegaNet got players access to an online newsletter and a selection of downloadable games for their Mega Drive, all for about six dollars a month.

 

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With Game Toshokan and the Mega Modem, you’ll finally reach Valhalla.

 

With the Game Toshokan cartridge, subscribers could download two games right off the bat on launch day: Putter Golf and Phantasy Star II: Amia no Boken. The first is basically minigolf, very reminiscent of Putt & Putter on the Master System. The second is the first in a series of text adventures that revealed the backstory of every hero character in Phantasy Star II.

 

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One of the first two games released for the Sega Game Toshokan service. Similar games were released for the Master System and Game Gear.

 

Over the following two years, another 25-or-so games were released to the service, including games that were released as cartridges in North America, like Flicky and Fatal Labyrinth.

Sadly, the service was discontinued around February ‘93, rendering this cool little piece of hardware basically obsolete. Luckily, all of those Toshokan games were preserved and re-released through the Game no Kanzume series on the Mega CD.

 

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Vol. 2 in the two-volume Game no Kanzume series.

 

Sega put the final nail in the Mega Modem’s coffin in 1993 when it released the redesigned Mega Drive 2. This new, sleeker version of the system did not have the proper ports (or shape) to be compatible with the Mega Modem.

The party wasn’t totally over, though. In 1994 a version of SanSan (an online Go service) was released for the Mega Drive, which allowed players with the console and a Mega Modem to play head to head against other players on the service, including cross play with PC gamers. The Mega Drive version apparently didn’t last very long, and the cartridge is considered one of the rarest on the system.

 

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Good luck getting your hands on one of these puppies.

 

The Mega Modem was way ahead of its time. Along with online play, it even offered online voice chat with the built-in microphone. Unfortunately, being ahead of its time was ultimately its downfall. Head-to-head online gaming would become huge, but not for another decade.

Sega of America COO at the time, Shinobu Toyoda, said in an interview in the “Sega Mega Drive/Genesis Collected Works” that SOA actually demonstrated a baseball game being played online during the summer CES in 1991. However, latency was just too high to allow for a good playing experience. This is likely why Sega of America never released the modem in North America, in spite of heavily advertising the renamed TeleGenesis Modem.

 

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Pour one out for the TeleGenesis.

 

The Mega Modem is important. Even though it didn’t last that long, it helped blaze a trail for subsequent hardware and services like the X-Band, Sega Channel, and the always-online, digital download future we live in today.

 

Tel-Tel Mahjong

 

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Best to just let the dragon win.

 

PLAYERS: 1 (1-3 simultaneous with online play??)

PUBLISHER: Sunsoft

DEVELOPER: Sunsoft, Chatnoir

GENRE: Table game

RELEASE DATE: 06/08/90 – (JP)

 

The Mega Drive’s first mahjong game, Mahjong Cop Ryuu, attempted to combine a hard-boiled noir adventure with thrilling tile swap high jinks. The result? Inconclusive. The game remains Japanese-only, with no fan translations forthcoming. The few that have written about the game (myself included) haven’t had the patience to decipher its Nihongo-heavy text. A Japanese commenter informed me that the game was “not up to my expectation” and to “avoid.” I believe this anonymous poster, but my curiosity remains piqued. Even if Mahjong Cop Ryuu is a disappointment, the genre combination seems ridiculously perfect.

 

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Mahjong Acid Trip.

 

Tel-Tel Mahjong is the Mega Drive’s second mahjong title and, like Mahjong Cop Ryuu before it, also has a hook that separates it from previous mahjong titles: online play. The game was compatible with Sega’s Mega Modem. Once connected, you could play mahjong online against other players at an enthralling 2400 bps using Sega’s own Meganet service.*

 

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You, a friend, and a Yakuza member take it to the online streets.

 

For a game that wore its ambitions in its title and featured a “Modem” telephone symbol on both the front and back cover of the game, it’s strange that Tel-Tel Mahjong released five months before the modem itself. The Mega Modem was released on November 3rd, 1990, while the game released on June 8th, 1990. Was this a mistake? Did Sega intend to release the modem earlier than they actually did? If anyone has any information on this (or any amazing theories), please leave a comment.

 

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Not that one, you stupid hand!

 

Tel-Tel provides three choices on the main menu: one-player mahjong, a screen that leads to a digitized telephone, and an options menu. Mahjong leads you through a series of menus, presumably to customize your style of play, before spewing you out into a match with two other computer players. Trying to use the telephone option today gets you nowhere. After a few seconds of seeing the phone, you’ll be whisked back to the main menu. Presumably, if you had the Mega Modem installed and were subscribed to the Meganet service, you would either dial the telephone manually using the Mega Drive controller or watch as the telephone connected you and a friend through electronic witchcraft.

 

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It’s so lifelike!

 

Admittedly, I don’t understand most kanji. But after exploring many different sub-menus, it doesn’t look like Tel-Tel Mahjong even supports two-player competitive play. This means that, if you purchased the game any time before the modem’s release in November, you could only play against computer opponents. What a rip! Even if you were content with a months-long wait to play mahjong against your friend in a different prefecture, a two-player option should have been included.

 

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At least you can choose from a variety of colorful characters.

 

While nobody would stand for this sort of staggered release today (imagine buying the latest Call of Duty and not being able to play multiplayer for five months), it’s not inconceivable to think that consumers from decades past would be willing to purchase a game and wait months before they could use it for its intended purpose. Not inconceivable, but still ridiculous. Five months is a long time, and there’s no reason Sunsoft couldn’t have just postponed Tel-Tel Mahjong‘s release to line up with the Mega Modem.

 

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The loneliest menu…

 

Without its online play, Tel-Tel Mahjong offers no surprises. No story mode, no two-player competitive feature. And if you don’t know how to play mahjong, this isn’t the game to teach you. There doesn’t appear to be any tutorial, and even if there was, it would be in Japanese. While I’ve attempted to learn mahjong in the past, I’ve found that it’s not easy to play without considerable practice. Online FAQs aren’t very helpful either, as even people that comprehend mahjong’s intricacies don’t describe the game well.

 

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Quick, knock over the table and run!

 

If you’re mad for mahjong, Tel-Tel Mahjong is fine. But since you can no longer use the game for its intended online purpose, it’s more of a historical curiosity than a game worth revisiting. If you really crave online mahjong, download a free mahjong app and play against anyone in the world – or at least your country. Sweet, sweet progress.

FOR THOSE WHO NEED A GRADE: C

*please look forward to an upcoming post that will unpack the Mega Modem’s history in more detail.

Now This is Happening

 

Two weeks ago, I was approached via e-mail by Bakdrop, a company who wanted to partner with me in making “Dylan Cornelius socks.” They informed me there was no upfront financial investment on my end, and I only stood to profit from the venture.

Uh huh, sure. I thought this was an odd hoax at first. Surely in order for this venture to proceed I would have to give Bakdrop my social security number, bank accounts, and first born child. I’m not a big name in the gaming community, so why would a random company reach out to me? And to make socks, no less?

After researching the company further and talking with folks who have worked with them (like Lazy Game Reviews), I’m convinced they’re the real deal. And so, after toying with a number of designs, the first ever Dylan Cornelius sock is available for purchase.

 

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If nothing else, I’m tickled by the sock’s existence. Once I found out Bakdrop was legit, I couldn’t say no.

Here’s the link for purchase: https://bakdrop.com/products/dylan-cornelius-crew-socks

If you are interested in adding some funky retro-themed socks to your collection, know that you only have a limited time to purchase them (a little over 7 days at the time of this posting). And a minimum of 20 must be purchased before they are made and delivered. You’ll only be charged if the campaign is successful.

For those wondering, Bakdrop set the price of the socks and the campaign time. The only input I had was the look of the sock.

Now if only publishing books were this easy…

Whip Rush

 

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“I could go my own waaaaay.”

 

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Many a parent would have passed up Whip Rush if not for its Seal of Quality.

 

PLAYERS: 1

PUBLISHER: Sega (JP), Renovation (US)

DEVELOPER: VIC Tokai

GENRE: Shoot-em-up

RELEASE DATE: 05/26/90 – (JP)

                                             10/90 – (US)

 

If you’re a fan of the shoot-em-up genre, you’ve played many a nondescript title like Whip Rush. The shooting mechanics are solid, the controls are tight, you do indeed “shoot them up.” And yet, after you’ve beaten it and moved on, you fail to remember any of the game’s defining characteristics. Either you have early onset Alzheimer’s (and I really hope you don’t), or Whip Rush‘s content is as lightweight as its title.

 

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John Lithgow will meet us there.

 

You control the ship Whip Rush (who looks a bit like Opa-Opa!) through seven levels of harrowing space madness. Armed only with a pew-pew bullet stream at first, you acquire weapon upgrades by destroying floating capsules. Your upgrades are: mega lasers, homing missiles, and fireballs that move in the opposite direction. Lasers are the strongest upgrade, but can only be shot in front. This makes it the wrong weapon to have for bosses with hard-to-reach weak points. Homing missiles will ensure enemies are hit, but they move slower and their power is slightly weaker than the laser. Fireballs spew out in whatever direction they want, and their sporadic movements make them worthless.

 

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Dastardly peach rings!

 

Because each weapon has a significant weakness, in order to handle each level’s various challenges, you’ll need to switch between weapons. The problem with this is that upgrade capsules do not appear often, and when they do, you don’t always know what weapon you’ll need for the obstacles ahead. If you choose the wrong weapon for a particular portion of the level – say a cluster of enemies appears behind you and all you have is the front-facing laser equipped – it could result in significant death.

 

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Better pray to Neil deGrasse Tyson that you make it out alive.

 

The Power Claws – tiny floating units that can be added to Whip Rush – are all but necessary for the game’s more intense segments. The units provide additional firepower and, when they appear, they float atop and below the ship. Up to two Power Claws can be equipped and spun in front, behind, on top or below Whip Rush, depending on the direction you want to attack. They also can’t be destroyed, no matter what you do to them, so feel free to ram them into enemies who’re getting a little too close to Whip Rush.

 

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Not even a Triple Laser can pierce this orb’s metallic heart.

 

Whip Rush is mostly a traditional horizontally-scrolling shoot-em-up, in that, you progress from left to right, merrily shooting other ships while avoiding their projectiles. Occasionally, though, the game pulls a spook on you and flips your direction. In level 1 for example, everything is proceeding as usual, when the stage suddenly descends. Large, formless obelisks (that will kill you if you touch them) move slowly past you as you float downward, while little robotic insect ships buzz around your personal space. Level 3 takes advantage of Whip Rush’s generous proportions and propels you horizontally forwards, backwards and vertically upwards through narrow corridors.

 

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Forget this noise.

 

What, if anything, sets Whip Rush apart from other unremarkable shoot-em-ups of yesteryear? The Power Claws, while neat, are a feature seen in both the Mega Drive shoot-em-up, Curse and used to superb effect in the underrated NES gem, S.C.A.T.. The power-ups aren’t effective. Generic level design fails to leave any mental imprints. The bosses are your stereotypical oversized machines you see in most shoot-em-ups. But! The game does allow you, at any time, to speed up and slow down your craft by pressing ‘A.’ This is cooler than you might think. No longer do you have to focus on getting speed power-ups in order for your ship to move faster than a sleeping snail. Want to slow down and consider your trajectory? Go for it. Want to soar through the galaxy like some intergalactic Autobahn? You have the power. The speed control is not a game-saving feature, but it is one I wish would be implemented in more shoot-em-ups.

 

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The Janitor Robot comes to settle the score.

 

Our time together is complete, Whip Rush. You have crappy power-ups, speed control, and a title that reminds me of a frosty Sonic beverage. Even with that information, I will likely forget I played you within a week or two. Man can not live by sugar alone.

 

C

DJ Boy

 

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This so-called ‘boy’ looks about 35.

 

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For once, I prefer the US cover.

 

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If you were the girl, would you trust that poser not to drop you?

 

PLAYERS: 1

PUBLISHER: Sega (JP/EU), Kaneko (US)

DEVELOPER: Kaneko (port by Inter State?)

GENRE: Beat-em-up

RELEASE DATE: 03/19/90 – (JP)

                                               1990 – (US)

                                             05/92 – (EU)

 

Sega Does exists not just to satisfy my eternal desire to review old Sega games, but to highlight smelly piles like DJ Boy. If you hail from the early 90s, but don’t remember DJ Boy, rest easy. It’s a sadistic beat-em-up that attempts to combine 80s hip hop street culture with a freewheeling Japanese mindset. And while that might sound like a retro lark worth experiencing, the reality is nostalgia worth forgetting. If River City Ransom‘s RPG elements and Streets of Rage 2‘s pulsating spirit elevated the beat-em-up genre to new heights, DJ Boy‘s sloppy mechanics contributed to its eventual end.

 

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Obstructing my field of vision? That’s a paddlin’.

 

You play as Donald J. Boy (this is not a drill), a young Rollerfighter who has to rescue his fly girl Maria from the Dark Knight crew. Said street knights include Big Mama, a racist caricature of a large black woman who throws pastries; the breakdancing Chippendale Dancer – ’nuff said; Clown Twins that explode into smaller clowns; and various rollerskating gang members that hate that a white kid from the Jersey suburbs calls himself ‘DJ Boy.’

 

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Even in 1990, Kaneko and Sega should have known better.

 

Unlike other beat-em-ups which force you to use your legs like a sucker, DJ Boy lets you glide on skates with relative ease. While this is certainly better than walking stiffly with your fists close to your chest, the speedy nature of skates makes it difficult to line up your attacks. If the Boy isn’t completely parallel to an enemy before he attempts to hit them, his hit will not land. Meanwhile, the enemy can attack and flail all over the place and still manage to hit the Boy where it counts.

 

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DJ Boy silently judges the energetic dancer.

 

DJ Boy starts the game as a weak-ass honky, with only four life bars and one life to his ridiculous name. With each level beaten, however, more bars will be added to his life and you’ll have the option to purchase an additional life at the store. The store appears automatically at the end of each level, and once there, you can purchase items with coins obtained from enemies. Items range from more attack power and additional defense to life-refilling burgers and the aforementioned extra life.

 

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A moment of peace.

 

Even with this help, DJ Boy is shamelessly difficult, and particularly if you play on Normal. Regular enemies take three or four hits to go down, and bosses can take up to several dozen, depending on the size of their life bar. While one hit is enough for DJ Boy’s life bar to dwindle by one, bosses often require several hits just to deplete one bar from their life. Solution: if you must play DJ Boy, play on Easy. It might hurt your pride, but the game will be somewhat fair.

 

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After his brief visit to the Casino, DJ Boy never slept again.

 

The level design mostly draws inspiration from previous beat-em-ups. Levels 1 and 2 have your stereotypical urban decay look. Girls throw dynamite at you from streetcars passing by, oil slicks slow your roll, and bowling balls tumble from the sky, as if God Himself was begging you to leave well enough alone. Level 3 is a Casino, and while there’s no gambling (you’re still a boy), there are lots of small mohawked clones in bellbottoms threatening to skate into your shins. Level 4 takes place atop a construction site, and incorporates tricky platforming elements along side the brawling. Levels 5 and 6 bring DJ Boy to an anticlimactic close, with you fighting every boss again, followed by two new bosses.

 

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No fair, look at the size of those platforms!

 

There are quite a few differences between the console and arcade versions of DJ Boy. In the arcade, you play as either Bob or Tom (Donald is nowhere to be found) and are on a quest to rescue your beloved boombox. The arcade is a simultaneous co-op, featuring obnoxious background vocal accompaniment from “Wolfman Jack” (not the legendary DJ, but a demonic imposter). In the Casino stage, you’re actually in a Casino instead of skating on the outskirts. Rather than an all-boss bonanza after the construction site, you go to a Western stage. Judging by the Youtube playthrough I watched, DJ Boy Arcade looks like a more well-rounded game than its Genesis/Mega Drive counterpart.

 

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One final awkward boss fight for the road.

 

Two turntables and a microphone? Only for real DJs. DJ Boy comes equipped with awful hit detection, insane difficulty, and little reason for being (why are the last two levels solely comprised of boss fights?). Donald J. Boy will never be a man at this rate. These wacky screenshots might pique your curiosity. I understand. Look at them, chuckle, and move on. DJ Boy is not the funky fresh hip-hop-em-up we want it to be.

 

D

Psy-O-Blade

 

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Tight white space pants? Truly our future is grim.

 

PLAYERS: 1

PUBLISHER: Sigma

DEVELOPER: T&E Soft (port by GRC)

GENRE: Adventure/Visual Novel

RELEASE DATE: 04/27/90 – (JP)

 

Psy-O-Blade proclaims itself a “Moving Adventure,” but those expecting a traditional adventure – one where you interact with your surroundings and progress the story via a menu of actions – will be disappointed. Psy-O-Blade is more of a visual novel, a science-fiction thriller complete with government corruption, awkward space love, and an unholy amount of exposition.

 

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One day your sweet skills will pay the bills, Michael… one day.

 

You play as Keith, a naive young pilot for the Ministry of Space. Along with the other MoS crew, you’re tasked with exploring Septemius 2, an important exploration vessel that mysteriously veered off-course before it could return to Earth. This is where the game begins, though there’s also a lengthy backstory involving the future of the world (get ready for Neocommunism, folks!), and how governments create killer satellites to keep their opponents in check. This information doesn’t really play into Psy-O-Blade‘s main story, but it does remind us that people will always be brutal to each other and that there’s truly nothing new under the sun.

 

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“I know this ain’t the Hilton, but have a little respect for the ceiling there, Mark.”

 

The Ministry of Space boasts quite the cast. In addition to Keith, there’s Bob the navigator, a quiet fellow who shares an uncanny resemblance to Robert, the de facto leader of the operation. Mark is a chemical analyst who’s killed off within the first fifteen minutes (spoilers, I guess, but were you really planning on playing Psy-O-Blade?). Michael is an engineer and resident jokester of the group. Doctor Jimmy is old, bald, and unusually quiet. Feminine is a green-haired Data Analyst with an awful name – surely the English translator didn’t bequeath this moniker upon her, did they? Finally, Sofia’s a computer engineer and Keith’s love interest throughout the game. These characters – for better and for worse – are the game. The only way to progress through Psy-O-Blade‘s tale of sabotage, murder, and mystery is by engaging with these characters repeatedly.

 

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Better talk about it for ten minutes before you investigate!

 

Psy-O-Blade‘s story takes place entirely within the confines of the Septemius 2. You talk with your comrades and interact with the environment by using the cursor and pressing ‘A’, while the functions ‘Move’ and ‘Save’ are brought up by pressing ‘C.’ Unless you’re specifically looking for clues as directed by the story, there’s very little reason to click on your surroundings. This means you’ll be talking to the characters until they provide you the right information. Usually, you’ll have to click on each of them several times and listen to some inane chatter until the Important Message is conveyed and you can move forward.

 

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Actually, it’s exactly like “Alien.”

 

Some of the conversations drag on at times, but Eien Ni Hen’s English translation for romhacking.net remains excellent. Not all of the characters are likeable (Sofia’s kinda awkward, Keith, don’t be a fool), but they all have distinct personalities that are revealed the more you converse with them. And while some of the dialogue leans heavily towards convoluted science stuff that – full disclosure – my right-leaning brain couldn’t comprehend, it’s great that Eien didn’t feel the need to dumb down the game’s concepts. I admittedly haven’t played many fan translations, but Psy-O-Blade definitely ranks at the top for me.

 

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The shame is real.

 

Even when little is happening, the Septemius is a foreboding place, making it easy to inhabit the dread felt by the characters. A couple encounters with killer androids heighten the tension, as does the surprising shoot-em-up sequence which forces you to kill 200 enemies in order to move forward. Once you’ve completed the game, however, and all mysteries have been solved, the payoff isn’t nearly as satisfying as the journey. The ending ties all the loose ends together, yet still manages to leave you feeling empty.

 

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This is the shoot-em-up sequence, and one of the only moments where the game requires you to do something.

 

Psy-O-Blade has never officially been released outside Japan, and was originally developed for Japanese computers like the PC-88 and MSX. From the few screenshots I’ve seen of those versions, the Mega Drive port is definitely the one to play, if only for the improved visuals and enhanced soundtrack. Save for the occasional grotesque head shot of the crew and developer T&E Soft’s strange decision to make all the dark-skinned characters look exactly alike, the colorful graphics enhance the late 80s sci-fi anime aesthetic. The soundtrack takes full advantage of the Mega Drive’s Yamaha sound chip and deftly weaves between bombastic rock (the drum patterns are glorious) and elegant melancholy.

 

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Men are pigs.

 

The story isn’t as compelling as it could be, but Psy-O-Blade is still worth experiencing for the eerie atmosphere, first-rate translation, and incredible soundtrack. Besides, the game requires so little of the player, you could beat it in a couple of hours and get on with your day. At the very least you’ll have experienced a genuine Moving Adventure and lived to tell about it.

 

B-

Final Blow / James “Buster” Douglas Knockout Boxing

 

This review is brought to you by the one and only Retro Referee, Peter Skerritt. Be sure to check out his work on Retroreferee.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteSkerritt/@TheRetroReferee.

 

FinalBlowJP

You’ve never felt a blow so final.

 

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Keep bustin’

 

PLAYERS: 1-2 simultaneous

PUBLISHER: Taito (JP), Sega (US, UK)

DEVELOPER: Taito

GENRE: Sports

RELEASE DATE: 03/23/90 – (JP)

                                               1990 – (US)

                                             03/91 – (EU)

 

James “Buster” Douglas Knockout Boxing tried to take advantage of one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. When Douglas beat Tyson via knockout in the tenth round of their fight on February 11, 1990, it made sense for SEGA to sign Douglas to a deal for a boxing game. Douglas was similar in his underdog status to where SEGA was versus the Nintendo juggernaut in the console video game industry at the time. On paper, this move was symbolic. Unfortunately, as far as the underlying game goes, Knockout Boxing isn’t anywhere close to being a contender for Boxing Video Game Champion.

 

Photo 1 BD Title Screen

Buster Douglas is ready to rumble.

 

Knockout Boxing is actually an altered version of Final Blow, a 1988 boxing arcade game from Taito. In this version, two new boxers—Buster Douglas, and the game’s final boss, Iron Head—are added to the coin-op roster, which includes Dynamite Joe, King Jason, Kim Nang, and Fernando Gomez. In order to reach Iron Head, players must win the Championship belt by defeating four boxers and then defend the belt four times. Iron Head, according to the game’s instruction manual, is “the toughest battle of your life”… and that’s not an exaggeration. (Seriously: Iron Head will destroy you.)

 

Photo 2 Dynamite Joe

More like Dynamite Dork, am I right, folks?

 

Each boxer handles essentially the same in Knockout Boxing, so there really isn’t any advantage to picking one boxer over another. The path to Iron Head is as easy with Buster Douglas as it is with Kim Nang, so choosing a boxer is all about who the player prefers. Back in 1990, choosing Buster Douglas was the thing to do. In 2016, considering how quickly Douglas fell out of the boxing spotlight, not choosing him is a pretty common decision. Since games only last maybe 15-20 minutes each, it’s possible to play through the game with all characters and burn only a couple of hours.

 

Photo 3 Fernando Pose

Fernando raises his arm… because he’s sure (that he’ll lose).

 

Play controls in Knockout Boxing are fairly easy to learn. The A button jabs, the B button throws straight punches, and the C button ducks. When using the D-pad with the A or B buttons, punches can be aimed toward the body instead of the head or different punch types can be thrown. Pressing the A and B buttons together, along with pressing either up or down on the D-pad, triggers power punches. A+B+Up, for example, throws a haymaker hook towards the opponent’s head. A+B+Down launches a devastating uppercut towards the opponent’s chin. Both of these power punches have the potential to end the fight if they connect—even once. They are slow to launch, but game-changing if they hit their target. The D-pad, by itself, moves the boxer left and right. Pressing up on the D-pad without pressing any of the face buttons also raises the boxer’s gloves to defend against head shots.

 

Photo 4 Buster Wins

Buster busts loose!

 

The problems with Knockout Boxing begin with the offense-first approach that the game takes. On the easiest difficulty setting, power punches can end a fight not 20 seconds after it begins. It’s similar to being able to execute a fatality in Mortal Kombat as soon as a round begins. Such devastating offense is something that should be earned after a period of time within a fight. Additionally, defense for a boxer is largely haphazard and often boils down to separation from the opponent instead of blocking. Offense winds up being the best defense, which isn’t representative of boxing. Look at Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! as an example; players must read and react to opposing offensive patterns, and Little Mac does have to block at least a few times along his path to the title. Knockout Boxing isn’t that precise, and often feels more like a button-masher than a more nuanced game.

 

Photo 5 Fernando OUT

Fernando is down for the count.

 

Additionally, Knockout Boxing is a very bare-bones experience. There’s nothing to signify that players win the championship belt or any build-up to facing Iron Head for the ultimate match. Instead, there are static screens that denote the player’s progress. “Defense match” screens are the only time that players see the championship belt. If a match goes longer than one round, there isn’t any kind of transitional screen; instead, the next round begins. There are still shots after victories that show the boxer being carried in the air, but it’s the same shot every time. Finally, while the game does track the highest score, there really isn’t any much rhyme or reason to the scoring system and scores aren’t saved to the cartridge once the power is turned off. Other boxing games, including Ring King and the aforementioned Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, have better senses of progression and offer more replay value as 8-bit NES titles than Knockout Boxing does as a 16-bit Genesis offering.

 

Photo 6 Nang TKO

Kim Nang doesn’t want the world to see him cry.

 

One area of strength for Knockout Boxing is its visual presentation. The boxers and the referee are all large characters with considerable detail to them. Outside of the ring, there’s a decent crowd of spectators cheering on the action. The game looks better than its peers for the time period, and is an example of how far visuals had come from the aging 8-bit era to the new 16-bit era. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the sound and music. The music is sparse and fairly repetitive, and the sound effects really don’t impress much. Surprisingly, there’s no digitized speech in the game, which is a bit surprising since other Genesis games at the time had managed to use it. Single-word commands like “Fight!” and “Break!” should have been voiced.

 

Photo 7 Defense Match

So… how ’bout that title belt?

 

Unfortunately, Knockout Boxing is hard to recommend. There simply isn’t enough in the overall package to justify more than a few rounds before the game becomes a tedious button masher and skill gives way to speed and stamina. The game may look the part, with its 16-bit graphics, but the gameplay and replay value aren’t strong enough to carry it to a 12-round decision. Leave this one in the gym.

D+

Darwin 4081

 

Darwin4081

It’s evolution, baby.

 

PLAYERS: 1

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Data East (port by Sega)

GENRE: Shoot-em-up

RELEASE DATE: 04/07/90 – (JP)

 

Darwin might be dust in the ground, but his theory of evolution is alive and morphing in the Xevious-style shoot-em-up, Darwin 4081. Originally called Super Real Darwin in the arcade, this Japanese Mega Drive exclusive has you collecting Evol bubbles to “Evolve” your ship into unique, more powerful forms. This system might sound forward-thinking, but in practice, it’s only a slightly different take on the traditional power-up format. If you played the game without reading the manual, you wouldn’t know the difference.

 

Darwin 4081 (J) [!]001

Even in the future, giant sandworms remain an intergalactic menace!

 

There are two types of Evol bubbles, both of which are collected by shooting enemies. Standard Evol will transform your ship into a different form with a stronger weapon. The bubbles appear in clusters, and it’s wise to collect as many as you can since your ship can undergo upwards of fifteen evolutions. Any evolutions you undergo beyond your original form will amass in your ship’s DNA, though they are time-sensitive. After a certain amount of time has passed, your ship will revert back to its previous evolutionary state and become slightly less powerful.

 

Darwin 4081 (J) [!]002

“You robot gnats should have gone extinct years ago!”

 

B-evol bubbles are rarer than Evol and transform your ship into beast forms, like a dragon or a spider. The term “rare” often means “better” in videogames, but not this time. Not only are the beast forms not very powerful, but they’ll reduce your ship back to its original weak form once time wears off. B-evol bubbles are difficult to distinguish from standard Evol, so ignore them as best you can.

 

Darwin 4081 (J) [!]005

Illuminati confirmed.

 

If your ship has tentacle-like protrusions coming from its behind, and you’re firing enormous laser blue rings, congratulations: you’ve survived to become The Fittest of the New Darwin Kingdom. Be careful, though. Even in the outer reaches of godless space, pride still goes before a fall, and your Fittest status can be removed as quickly as it came. If you get hit once, your ship reverts back to its pathetic primordial state. One more hit and you’ll explode.

 

Darwin 4081 (J) [!]004

This ancient Pentium processor doesn’t stand a chance!

 

But all is not lost, even after you’re dead. If you collect enough DNA samples from creatures lurking on the ground (seen as bubbles with the letters “DNA” in the middle), after you die, you will return from the boneyard as a slightly stronger vessel. As with the Evol bubble, these creatures – which usually resemble lizards and bugs – must be bombed off the planet before their DNA can be collected.

 

Darwin 4081 (J) [!]007

Tears and fears

 

Many shoot-em-ups circa late ’80s suffer from unappealing art design, and Darwin 4081 is no different. Some of these screenshots notwithstanding, the levels are dull and lifeless, while the constantly morphing ship and robotic creature designs are void of any personality or style. Not every shoot-em-up can have Easter Island heads for enemies or coat a stage in decaying alien remains, but there’s no reason Data East couldn’t have ventured further into Darwinian lore (a stage built atop a mecha-Galapagos turtle?) to create a more vibrant shoot-em-up.

 

Darwin 4081 (J) [!]003

Then again, that pink Casio keyboard is pretty boss.

 

The evolution gimmick is all that distinguishes Darwin 4081 from the overcrowded shoot-em-up genre, so it’s a shame Data East didn’t expand upon the idea. What features could they have added while staying within the confines of the traditional shoot-em-up? Besides more unique creature designs and some background elements, it’s hard to say. Perhaps bolstering the evolutionary system – each creature, depending on their biology, could affect your ship in different ways should you get hit by them – would have slowed the game down and alienated die-hard shoot-em-up fans. As it stands, Darwin 4081‘s conservative approach means it plays less like a genre game-changer and more like an overly aggressive take on Xevious. If you’re a fan of the genre, Darwin 4081 is fun enough, but those desiring a revolution should look elsewhere.

 

C

After Burner II

 

AfterBurnerIIJP

Planes! Missiles! After Burning!

 

AfterBurnerIIUS

Sega put an F-15e Strike Eagle on the cover, even though you control a variation of the F-14 Tomcat in the game.

 

PLAYERS: 1

PUBLISHER: Dempa (JP), Sega (US, EU)

DEVELOPER: Sega (port by Dempa)

GENRE: Shoot-em-up

RELEASE DATE: 03/23/90 – (JP)

                                             07/90 – (US)

                                             04/91 – (EU)

 

After Burner… II? Sega would like you to think so, but no. This isn’t a brand new entry in the franchise, but an upgrade to the original; like Street Fighter II Turbo was to Street Fighter II. After Burner II adds throttle control, three new levels, more missiles, and considerably more enemy planes. Not enough to warrant the Roman numeral “II”, but the throttle control in particular makes for a better experience.

 

After Burner II (UE) [!]005

Realizing After Burner II isn’t a true sequel, Dempa hides the “II” behind the title.

 

For those who haven’t experienced the original After Burner, you control an F-14 Skycat and your mission is to destroy any plane you see in and around God’s blue yonder. You have two weapons, an unlimited-round Vulcan 20mm cannon that fires automatically and a limited missile trove. You might think that the automatic fire would make the game easier, but this is not the case. Enemy planes bombard you from all directions and many of them won’t go down without a locked-on missile to the face.

 

After Burner II (UE) [!]000

Under a Tang-orange sky, one man tries not to get his ass killed…

 

After Burner was best experienced in the arcade via the infamous sit-down moving cabinet. As you steered the plane all over creation with the flight stick, your seat rotates horizontally while the cockpit rotates vertically. This visceral body jolting was thrilling, and it was also the best way to cover up the game’s limitations. Take away the rollercoaster cabinet and you’re left with a repetitive shooter, hampered particularly by the behind-the-plane camera that hinders your field of vision.

 

After Burner II (UE) [!]004

These Payday bars came out of nowhere!

 

After Burner II keeps the same limited camera view, but the ability to speed up or slow down with the throttle control is a significant boon. You’re no longer forced to watch helplessly as a missile careens toward your weak Skycat shell. While speeding up is usually the best course of action to avoid groups of missiles, Sega doesn’t allow the player to abuse their new powers. There are more planes than ever before in each level, and getting through them requires a mixture of your own missile attacks, speeding away, and/or twisting recklessly through the shrapnel.

 

After Burner II (UE) [!]001

Thanks, Mom.

 

At its best, After Burner II makes you feel like you’re surviving the worst air battles of your generation. Maneuvering foolishly through a dozen planes – all of which have launched missiles at you – and coming out the other side intact will get your heart racing.

 

After Burner II (UE) [!]002

I believe this counts as “The Danger Zone.”

 

That being said, the game does occasionally drift downwards into the Unfair Valley. Even if you’re able to control your janky Skycat with grace, locking on to more than a couple planes at a time is difficult, if not impossible. Later levels also add planes with increasing frequency, giving you little time to lock onto them. You’ll be lucky to get a couple missiles launched before you have to tuck your plane into whirlybird overdrive and avoid the carnage entirely.

 

After Burner II (UE) [!]003

The grass fails to provide a soft landing for your ragdoll remains.

 

After Burner II doesn’t differ enough from its predecessor to earn that “II,” but it is the best home version of After Burner I’ve ever played. The throttle control provides an additional depth that the original After Burner lacked and gives the sense that, if you master speeding up and slowing down at the right moments, you just might come out on top. Clearly the arcade, with its shakes, rattles and rolls, is the preferred way to immerse yourself in a dogfight. But if you’re actually looking to play the game and not just waste your laundry money, this Genesis port will teach you how to fly with the best of ’em.

 

B

Target Earth / Assault Suit Leynos

 

TargetEarthJP

The Glowing Red Eye of Disappointment

 

TargetEarthUS

Boba Fett 2099

 

PLAYERS: 1

PUBLISHER: Masaya (JP), DreamWorks (US)

DEVELOPER:  NCS

GENRE: Action/shoot-em-up

RELEASE DATE: 03/16/90 – (JP)

                                             06/90 – (US)

 

Back in the day, any game had the potential to turn into a full-fledged series. To wit: Assault Suit Leynos, otherwise known as Target Earth to US audiences. As was the style at the time, Target Earth was a meaningless title given to trick American gamers into thinking they weren’t playing a Japan-developed game; in other words, there is no Target Earth II. The series continued as Assault Suits Valken or Cybernator on the SNES. After Cybernator, no other ASL games made it to our shores. Assault Suit Leynos II and Assault Suits Valken II emerged in Japan on the Saturn and Playstation respectively in the late ’90s, while both Europe and Japan received an Assault Suits Valken remake on the PS2.

 

Target Earth (U) [!]001

Lousy outcasts, always gumming up progress.

 

Why do I bring up such arcane history? Because there is no way this series should have continued. Assault Suit Leynos is a joyless, awkward mech shooter released on the Mega Drive. Not only is the game itself underwhelming, but the platform it was released on wasn’t popular in the slightest in Japan. And yet, somehow, the franchise persevered into the 21st century. Crazier still, a PS4 remake of Assault Suit Leynos was released only a month ago to moderate acclaim. Perhaps there’s more to Target Earth‘s joyless awkwardness than I realize?

 

Target Earth (U) [!]000

“Only 34 miles to a better game…”

 

You control a shrunken mech otherwise known as an Assault Suit, and you’re tasked with fighting alien forces and defending Earth. Before each level begins, you’re given your choice of weapons: spread shooters, bomb launchers, machine guns, etc. Your mech has six slots for weapons, and in the early stages, you’ll be able to take all weapons with you and switch between them in the heat of battle. As the game progresses, you’ll obtain more weapons and be forced to decide which ones you’ll take.

 

Target Earth (U) [!]002

“Check again, doll face.”

 

Once you’ve selected your weapons, dialogue boxes at the bottom of the screen guide you to your task. These tasks are usually simple: destroy the approaching warship, get to the shuttle, kill enemies for two minutes, etc. It’s keeping yourself alive that’s tricky. While your life bar is relatively long (and can be extended by equipping ARMOR powerups), a cluster of enemies shooting you in unison will destroy you if you don’t take them out quickly.

 

Target Earth (U) [!]003

Walking on brain meat unnerves the bravest of mech captains.

 

Target Earth‘s difficulty is unreal. You only have one life and two continues to make it through eight increasingly chaotic outer space scenarios. In true retro game fashion, the game is only balls hard because it’s so short. Once you get a feel for each stage’s layout, you can clear most of them in less than two minutes. That is, if you can endure the unwavering enemy onslaught.

 

Target Earth (U) [!]005

“Would you guys lay off? I’m trying to destroy your base!”

 

The game has a couple bits of innovation: a regenerating life bar and player evaluation. The latter is given at the end of each stage and is determined by your score. The more points you get, the more armor and weapons are unlocked for you to use in the next stage. Player evaluation is interesting and would become a crucial Japanese game mechanic in the survival horror genre, but I’m shocked to see a regenerating lifebar in a game released in 1990. Originally made popular in Halo, the regeneration isn’t just a neat quirk: it’s imperative for survival. Unfortunately, bars only go up after a couple seconds of not getting hit, and it’s rare for you to have that kind of peace here.

 

Target Earth (U) [!]004

Suddenly, Rambo appears!

 

Surprising innovation aside, Target Earth couldn’t be more mundane. The level design is unvaried (yet another space battle!), your enemies are all bland robots, and your mech, despite being hyped up in the manual as the savior of Earth, is short and weak. The action is intense at times, and it is thrilling to finally fell a boss that killed you dozens of times before, but you can get that sensation from any number of superior platformers and/or shoot-em-ups. God help me, Japan, I just don’t get it.

 

D