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ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! Review

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Few games thrive to be like the original.  Sure, plenty thrive to be as influential or popular as the original, but in the case of the ToeJam & Earl franchise the goal is to literally be just like the original.  This is a fact that franchise designer Greg Johnson knows all too well as he’s seen any delineation from the formula of the first game fall short.  As you can read in my recent retrospective, Johnson along with various teams has been trying to give the fans what they have consistently asked for: a new version of that unique Genesis roguelike from 1991.  I’m happy to say that if you are one of these fans, or even if you’ve never touched a ToeJam & Earl game before, you’re in for a treat.  Back in the Groove takes the magic of the original title and enhances it in various ways while also knowing when to keep things consistent.

ToeJam and Earl are two funky rapping aliens that “borrowed” the Rapmaster Rocket from their planet of Funkotron to go joyriding.  Along the way the duo, along with friends Latisha and Lewanda, accidentally travel through a black hole and crash land on the mysterious planet of Earth.  In ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! you are tasked with selecting one of the four friends along with the original version of both ToeJam and Earl from the Genesis iterations as you collect all 10 pieces of the Rapmaster Rocket and get home to Funkotron.  In a hybrid exploration and survival isometric action game, you utilize presents with unique abilities to navigate the enemies and traps in multiple levels that are either fixed or randomly generated.  Yes, as I said, ToeJam & Earl is back.

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Written by Fred Rojas

February 28, 2019 at 9:00 am

Jammin’!: The Story of ToeJam & Earl

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In proverbial “man I’m getting old” fashion, I’ve just realized that we’re just two-and-a-half years shy of the 30th Anniversary of ToeJam & Earl.  It’s not like I suddenly woke up and decided to write about this franchise, either, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove will release this Friday, March 1st and while we can’t talk about it yet, tune back into the site on Thursday to get all the details and our thoughts. Permit me to take you back to the halcyon days of the Sega Genesis (Mega Drive for you players outside North America) and into the team that dared to make a roguelike in 1991 on consoles.

ToeJam & Earl (1991, Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, Developed by Johnson Voorsanger Productions, Published by Sega)

The story of ToeJam & Earl starts with its creator Greg Johnson and his fanaticism for Rogue while at UCSD.  The link above will provide you background on both Rogue and the now dubbed “roguelike” genre, but back in 1980s there was only one game influencing a slew of young developers.  Johnson would go on to EA working on PC titles, including his most notable releases as designer on Starflight in 1986 and Starflight 2 in 1989, the latter receiving Computer Gaming World’s Roleplaying Game of the Year award in 1990.  The franchise involves space exploration with integrated strategy, combat, and simulation in a non-linear fashion.  It was a starting point and notoriety for Johnson early in his career and allowed him to get more creative as he brainstormed his next project.  It was around this time, according to a Gamasutra’s interview I reference consistently, that Johnson met Mark Voorsanger, a programmer, while mountain climbing with a mutual friend.  The two hit it off so well that Johnson pitched the idea for ToeJam & Earl and immediately set to work on establishing Johnson Voorsanger Productions, the studio that would develop and release the game.

The concept was pretty straightforward, but also unique for the time.  ToeJam & Earl is about two rapping aliens dripping with 90s urban culture who have their ship breakdown on Earth and have to scour randomly generated maps to re-collect all the pieces.  Some may even call it a cartoonish, funky version of Rogue.  According to Johnson, the main concepts that drove design were randomized maps and survival to complete the grand task of rebuilding your ship.  I’m used to hearing about all the struggles that game development faces – in the Gamasutra interview you can read about Johnson’s in his formative years – but oddly enough this wasn’t the case with ToeJam & Earl.  To hear him tell it, the design doc was easily assembled and Johnson pulled old team members into development, including the talented John Baker who was responsible for the soundtrack.  A quick meeting with Sega that spelled out the design on note cards along with their combined experience on major games was enough to get the title published.

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Written by Fred Rojas

February 26, 2019 at 3:00 pm

Iron Crypticle Review

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Tikipod continues its quest to release all of it’s games to the Switch and I’m sure my whinging at the developer on the internet for a full year had everything to do with it. Iron Crypticle is next up for players and once  again Tikipod has knocked it out of the park, or maybe the crypt in this case.

Set in the land of Cryptonia, the royal treasure consisting of giant golden fruits, vegetables, and the princess have been taken, leaving a large gaping hole in the floor. It’s up to the lazy kings guard (who sort of let this happen in the first place) to jump down the hole and save the day. Iron Crypticle doesn’t take itself too seriously and you will undoubtedly chuckle at various moments including the merchant cat and the games final ending, which of course I won’t spoil here. I highly recommend you check out the “ledger” which is a sort of codex of all the items you collect in the game where the developer has taken the time to give a humorous description for practically everything you see (there may also be an achievement in it for you if you make the effort).

Iron Crypticle is a top down twin stick arcade shooter with roguelike elements that takes influences from a few old arcade favourites including Ghouls’N Ghosts, Smash TV, and even Bubble Bobble.

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Written by jamalais

February 18, 2019 at 11:00 am

Rock Boshers DX: Switch Review

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Developed and Published by Tikipod

With the Switch becoming ever more popular day by day its no surprise indie developers are starting to re-release a lot of their work onto the system. Developer Tikipod released Aqua Kitty UDX to Switch earlier this year, a game well suited to Nintendo’s hybrid handheld. Now it’s time for Rock Boshers DX to gets turn in the Switch spotlight.  Both myself and Fred reviewed Rock Boshers for PS4 and PS vita and after reading the reviews again I feel everything is still relevant to how I feel about the game today. That review can be found here.

Aqua Kitty minigame

Rock Boshers DX is a love letter to the micro computer days of video games. A time where several video games were developed – some in bedrooms apparently – it was a time where you would see all sorts of crazy game ideas but as the years progressed and consoles became more popular video games became more focused and everyone decided Zelda was the best game ever, the end. Okay, that’s not exactly what happened, but Rock Boshers DX also likes to play with history. You play as Young Victoria in a steam punk future set in 1880. Victoria finds a nice hat that disguises her then decides to head to Mars. After being forced to work in the mines and “bosh” some rocks, your goal is to escape and find a way home and possibly bump into Charles Darwin a few times as you do. The story is just brilliant and your curiosity to what will happen next will carry you through the games 24 stages. Once you’ve finished with the story you also have four arcade style games to enjoy which are unlocked by collecting tea, scone and cheese collectibles in the main game. Not sure I know any other game that uses this as a collectible.

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Written by jamalais

December 7, 2018 at 3:00 pm

Posted in Reviews, Switch

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Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom Review

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Developer: Game Atelier                             Publisher: FDG Entertainment 

Monster Boy is the spiritual sequel to the Wonder Boy franchise, a series Sega has left dormant since 1994. These games were hugely important to me growing up and hold a very special place in my heart. I probably love the Wonder Boy series how people love the Zelda series except without dressing up as one of the characters (real chain mail is expensive). For me it has been a very long wait for a sequel spiritual or otherwise. We have since seen a few re-releases of the previous games on multiple digital platforms. In 2017 developer Lizardcube gave us a beautiful remake of Wonder Boy: The Dragons Trap. Originally we were going to see Monster Boy release that same year but developer Game Atelier decided to halt for a final year to polish up the gameplay and completely redo the graphics. Its been almost five years of development for the team, was the wait worth it?

On booting up the game you’re greeted with an impressive anime style cutscene which gives you a preview of the enemies you will be fighting and the animals you will be playing as. The song playing is also awfully addictive and it hasn’t left my brain since I heard it at E3 this year.  You play as Jin, a young chap with blue hair whose uncle appears to be up to no good changing the people of Monster World into animals as well as having a potential drinking problem. It’s not long into the story when your Uncle turns you into pig dressed in pirate gear (a nod to my favourite NPC in The Dragons Trap). You soon learn that to lift the curse you need to collect five magical orbs scattered across various dark corners of Monster World. The story comes with a few twists and turns and inevitably ends up as a typical save the world type tale. What makes this story stand out however, is its sense of humour. All the characters speak with text boxes including Jin himself and won’t shy away from making a witty joke about the current situation. Right up to the games darkest turns it was hard not to laugh at some of the games witty attempts at humour. The story is straight forward to follow and doesn’t really get in the way of your adventuring. Should you need to repeat sections of the story the game does allow you to skip them.

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Written by jamalais

December 7, 2018 at 11:00 am

Call of Cthulhu (2018) Review

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The works of H.P. Lovecraft are a great source for horror with the cold American East Coast being a predominant backdrop for the mysteries of the sea, secret cults, ancient gods, and of course the fragility of the human condition.  I’ve always felt these works lend themselves to the written word much better than other media due to the way Lovecraft tends to portray things with suggestions of the indescribable and the subjective way a person’s perspective can twist reality.  This is also why in gaming form I find the pen and paper RPG Call of Cthulhu captures the essence of these works because the entire game is much like its source material: interactive works of written (or scripted) fiction.  The challenge faced with video games the challenge of taking the themes of Lovecraft and turning them into a form of gameplay that is both realistic and enjoyable.  While a few attempts at Call of Cthulhu – a name that is used more for its notoriety and less for an actual connection to the short story – have been made, no studio has really been able to nail the gameplay part.  No matter how much I respect the old Infogrames adventure games or Dark Corners of the Earth, all of the Call of Cthulhu titles require caveats when recommending them.  As much as I had hoped developer Cyanide’s Call of Cthulhu game, based on Chaosium’s aforementioned pen and paper RPG, would break the mold it fails to overcome the gameplay challenge yet again.  Fortunately it oozes the dark and twisted world that is so unmistakably Lovecraft that you may excuse the gaming faults for overall experience.

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Written by Fred Rojas

October 30, 2018 at 11:00 am

Horror Obscura 2018: Dark Castle (Mega Drive/Genesis)

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In the past Horror Oscura I have explored games which are focused around horror and the use of horror in games you would not class as a horror title.  This year I wanted to go back to my childhood and re-visit one of my biggest horrors: Dark Castle on the Sega Mega Drive (Genesis in North America).

Back in my childhood I was scanning the cheapest of the used Mega Drive titles in the retailer “GAME” on the South Coast of England when I came a came across Dark Castle. This was back in the 90s, I saved up my cash long and hard to treat myself to a video game. At a young age I was drawn to dark themes and games that just weren’t well known so Dark Castle, matched that category. Looking at the box now though one may question what I was thinking. The front of the box has a gargoyle on it stuck like old Clip Art on a background of a castle entrance. Not particularly appealing. The back of the box quotes, “climb the ramparts of the Dark Castle and dethrone the Black Knight.” An interesting quote but not a lot to go on. Keep in mind in the UK the back of the box often had a very short description of the game in multiple European languages. The instruction manual also included translation for 6 European languages. Flipping the back of the box over I guess it was the screen shots that appealed. Pictures of a eyeball creatures with hands, zombies looking monsters. Back then the game cost me £12.99 (the price sticker is still on my copy to this day), some may consider that a horror to itself.

So what is this game about? Dark Castle is a 2D adventure platformer. The game is presented as single screen levels most of which you just need to reach the end to survive. Some will require you to solve some head scratching puzzles. As young Duncan your objective is pretty simple: defeat the Dark Knight. However, to do this you need to complete three quests as outlined in the instruction manual titled “Trouble,” “Fireball,” and “Shield.” Completing the latter two will give you a item that will help you in your quest, more on these later. When you begin the game you are literally presented with four doors. Two doors have a “?” the other two “BK” with a shield. BK of course stands for Black Knight. If you are brave enough you could just attempt to take on the Black Knight and finish the game super fast, this goes against what the instructions advises but it can be done. Not so easy if you choose the Hard difficulty setting though. If you go in blind in the game you just have a choose a door and hope for the best.

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Written by jamalais

October 29, 2018 at 11:00 am

The Council Episode 4: Burning Bridges Review

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If you have not read our review containing the previous episodes, it’s highly recommended as it’s not only referenced, but we may not discuss many of the mechanics present in previous episodes.  This was to prevent redundant comments and move directly into the changes in the current episode.  Eventually the link above will serve as the location for all episode reviews.  This review contains no spoilers.

Going into episode 4 of The Council I had absolutely no expectations.  The story was stagnant, the character development was marred by writing away plot holes with twins and the supernatural, and the gameplay was almost flat out boring.  I had grown tired of Louis and this fun alternative take on history because it seemed like the development team was out of ideas.  What started as an experiment in alt history along with a modern take on the adventure genre had become a series of fetch quests surrounding a main, but rock solid, puzzle with all plot points stressing answers to “a mystery.”  I didn’t think there was anything developer Big Bad Wolf could put in as an explanation that would live up to this fabled mystery.  In that regard, I will admit I was wrong, because Episode 4 throws you a massive curve ball and begins to answer questions left and right.  Events transpire at a lightening pace compared to what we’ve seen previously and some major events are given out like candy.  It also was apparently a good time to introduce a whole new mechanic that seems to heavily null some of the old mechanics, and the confrontation system has become a minefield for your usable resources.  The whole game was dialed up to 11 and it all seemed rushed out, which I’m betting it was.  While I have to admit I enjoyed playing through Episode 4, it’s frantic attempt to get things back on track came at the expense of it’s largest asset: the previous episodes no longer matter.

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Written by Fred Rojas

October 1, 2018 at 11:00 am

The Council Episode 3: Ripples Review

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If you have not read our review containing the previous episodes, it’s highly recommended as it’s not only referenced, but we may not discuss many of the mechanics present in previous episodes.  This was to prevent redundant comments and move directly into the changes in the current episode.  Eventually the link above will serve as the location for all episode reviews.  This review contains no spoilers.

In many ways I consider the third episode of a five episode series to be the moment of truth.  It seems episodic titles are doomed to have weaker second episodes because of the natural arc of plot and character development, but typically you get a twist and/or climax in the third episode that redeems everything.  While The Council definitely follows this formula, it was disappointing to see that while the story takes some drastic new turns, what you actually play is the same old song and dance.  I don’t know what I was expecting, but it surely wasn’t yet another trip through the mansion followed by a huge dump of exposition and concluding in a long obtuse puzzle…again.  Regardless of those expectations, that’s exactly what I received, which has me weary of future episodes and frankly a bored in the current one.  I didn’t even play this episode a second time, there seemed to be no need.  If you’re not fully invested in the overall season before going into this episode, it’s probably best you stay away for now.

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Written by Fred Rojas

July 30, 2018 at 11:00 am

Unravel Two Review

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At E3 2015 a shy developer named Martin Sahlin walked onto the Electronic Arts (EA) stage and announced his passion project Unravel, developed by Coldwood Interactive. This would be the first game to be part of the “EA Originals” program, where EA helps fund small independent game projects and allows the developer to keep all the profits (after repaying the funding and also publishing/marketing budgets). Despite how you personally feel about EA as a company this is proof that sometimes there is heart even in a big corporation like EA. While the internet would take note of the developers nerves and fragile presentation for the time it felt real and it was clear Unravel meant a lot to Sahlin. In all honesty I would struggle to talk in front of a large audience even if it was about something you loved.

Unravel was a cute, puzzle-based platformer where you play a character made out of wire and yarn. The game had beautiful music that moved me in ways that I rarely experience in games. I guess it was made even more unique and special to me because the reception for Unravel wasn’t favourable across the board. My partner loved watching me play Unravel too. I loved Unravel so much that in preparation for my wedding in 2017, I decided to make 112 Yarny dolls myself in accordance with the number of guests attending (another game inspired decorations but that’s a tale for another day). We knew a sequel was on the way, EA had reported it had been successful, and the developers were already at work on it. My partner and I would theorize what the sequel would be like, with the biggest wish on the list being the inclusion of local co-op; this seemed to be the best evolution of the series. E3 2018 rolls around, Unravel Two gets announced, and both my wife and I leaped for joy. Then we leaped a second time because it was revealed the game was available on the day of announcement and includes co-op. I was so eager to purchase the game I refreshed the Xbox One store page six times as well as switching the console on and off again twice just so I could purchase and download it. I rarely get this excited for a game on launch.

Its taken me a while to get to the actual review of Unravel Two, but I felt the above paragraph was important as it discloses how much the original game meant to me and additionally how difficult it was to write the following review.

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Written by jamalais

July 5, 2018 at 11:00 am