Legends of Eisenwald

I reviewed Legends of Eisenwald over at Tech-Gaming.com

"An uncommon low-fantasy theme and a streamlined experience favoring RPG mechanics make Legends of Eisenwald a unique and engaging experience amongst contemporaries."

Full review HERE

Sega Visions Part 2: Growing by Leaps and Bounds

Click here for Part 1

Having introduced itself to its fledgling customer base, Sega had effectively opened a channel of communication between creator and consumer. Sega Visions' premiere issue may have been little more than a glorified brochure, but even then one could see the magazine aspired for more. In this part, I take a general overview at issues 2 through 9, published between October 1990 and August 1992. If that number seems low for the two year time-frame it's because Sega Visions was published either bi-monthly or quarterly, though many users today often reminisce on how each issue was sent out at seemingly random intervals. I chose this time-frame as this was the pre-Sonic 2 era of the Genesis. While Sonic The Hedgehog put Sega on the map, I would argue it wasn't until its sequel that Sega had reached the peak of its infrastructure and brand recognition as evidenced in later magazine releases.

The covers for issues 2 and 7 respectively

Content improvements were not readily apparent, the second issue featured higher quality ads from both Sega and third party publishers but was otherwise unremarkable. Perhaps most interesting is how the Genesis was marketing alongside its 8-bit predecessor, the Master System, a move with delighted readers as evidenced by fan mail. Many of the early frequently asked question focused more on the 8-bit system's future instead of its 16-bit successor, not helped by rumors of a CD-Rom adapter in the horizon.

By the second issue, ads had improved significantly

It's obvious the shadow of an impending 16-bit system by Nintendo looms over Sega fans. This is further compounded by mis-information provided by Sega Visions' staff. Perhaps over-zealous in their hype for the recently released Strider, editors had erroneously claimed Genesis cartridges could hold a maximum of 8 Megabits and were now forced to backtrack. For those unaware, the largest commercial cartridge ever released for Sega's system was Super Street Fighter 2 which required 40 Megabits of free space. This barrier was later surpassed in 2010 with the release of Pier Solar and its 64 Megabit cartridge. Presently, it's widely accepted that this is the console's media limit.

The Master System is a prominent recurring topic for readers, as are rumors of the upcoming Super Nintendo and CD adapter for the Genesis.

Most people associate minors as the average console consumer of this era, but surprisingly, many of the letters posted were written by adults. It's not uncommon to see gamers claiming to be software engineers, in their 20s or to have been playing since Atari. 

Sega Visions had unwittingly appealed to an older crowd in its early days

This would be short-lived, as by the following year an influx of new, younger readers became the norm thanks to the success of Sonic The Hedgehog as well as hype regarding its sequel. Soon, the magazine would be redesigned to fit this new audience. Adverts, aesthetics and even tonal differences in content reflected these changes. Even the news section ventured outside gaming and approached topics teen-related interests including Beverly Hills 90210. If one had any doubts the new generation had taken over, you'd need only to read the fan mail. Letters became Genesis-centric as kids migrated from Nintendo to Sega's 16-bit system. They also little understanding of hardware specs; it seemed every new issue had at least someone asking what a bit was, or what are sprites for.

One year later, the average Sega Visions reader was much younger

With a limited number of pages per issue, Sega Visions had to manage promotion for the Genesis, Master System and a newly launched Game Gear. It comes as a surprise to no-one that Sega's 8-bit legacy console saw limited success in the US and with an influx of readers who had never owned a Master System it seemed clear the solution was to sacrifice space previously reserved for the ailing console. Once, each issue promoted a healthy amount of content for this system. Now, it was relegated to 2-3 advertisement pages and once early previews for the Sega CD began, it wouldn't even have that. By the time issue 9 rolled out, the Master System was all but forgotten in favor of Sega's new handheld and their upcoming CD based peripheral

The Game Gear and Sega CD stole what little thunder the ailing Master System had left

In eight short issues Sega Visions grew by leaps and bounds and the best was yet to come. In part 3, I'll be taking a look at how the success of Sonic 2 and Sega's aggressive advertising heralded the magazine's peak and helped shaped up a loyal, dedicated community.

Sega Visions Part 1: Humble Beginnings

The year was 1990, Sega, far from being the software we remember was struggling to gain a foothold in the US market. Having recently regained the publishing rights of its 8-bit console, the Master System from Tonka, it found itself having to manage not one, but two different consoles. Sega executives knew Master System owners had little connection with the software giant, moreover, studies had shown Sega owners were more vocal and more likely to defend their underdog console. For this reason, marketing director Al Nilson wanted to create an official magazine for its userbase and so, in June/July of 1990, Sega Visions was sent out free of charge to all registered Sega Hardware owners.

Sega Visions' premiere issue cover

Now, this wasn't the first Sega themed publication in the US, that honor falls to Team Sega Newsletter, a simple magazine mostly used to advertise Master System products. It's unknown to me whether Team Sega Newsletter magazine was produced by Tonka or Sega. Sega Visions on the other hand was meant to expand on this concept, offering more original content, providing customers with information which could be later used as ammunition against Nintendo fans and more importantly, give its userbase a voice. This allowed Sega to communicate with is estranged Master System demographic and in turn, promote both systems.

A review for the Master System version of Golden Axe touting 'arcade-quality graphics'

At first, Sega Visions functioned more as a glorified ad than an actual magazine with original content. The first few issues focused on advocating the two consoles' software line-up through catalogs, limited time offers and 'reviews' which were seemingly more preoccupied in getting its readers to purchase the games instead of providing an actual critique. This can be witnessed in the Master System Golden Axe review, which touts "Arcade-quality graphics". Though the game is a technical achievement for Sega's 8-bit console, it was still a far cry from what arcade contemporaries displayed graphically. Moreover, it fails to mention Tyris Flare and Gillius Thunderbeard aren't playable in this version or that there is no 2-player mode. Despite this, it still make an arguable claim that "it contains all the elements" responsible for the success of its arcade counterpart, declaring this port as "the new standard for 8-bit videogames". Simply put, the text made little attempts to hide the fact it was a sales pitch first and an analysis second.

The magazine introduces Michael Katz to all Sega readers

Most of this premiere issue consists of ads, catalogs, coupons and 'reviews'. Reading it today however the main draw comes in the form of an introduction letter by then Sega of America President, Michael Katz, fanmail and the magazine's attempts at creating a community. It's ironic how the article states Michael Katz is still "settling" in his new job and that "no one is better equipped to lead Sega" considering he was replaced by Tom Kalinske only a few months after. In a 2006 interview with Sega-16 it became abundantly clear that to this day, Michael Katz (understandably) carries a chip on his shoulder over his abrupt end at the software giant.

Sega FAQs

Being the first issue, the fan mail was expectedly short. With that said, a page was dedicated to frequently asked questions, avid readers may notice most of these were related to a confused consumer who didn't know how the Genesis would affect the Master System's future or in what way did these two systems differ. One inquiry in particular caught my eye, asking why should users purchase a 16-bit console instead of waiting for 32-bit hardware, the answer not only dodged the issue, but even went as far as to imply we would need HD televisions before any system could surpass the Genesis.

Fan mail

As previously mentioned, the fan mail was understandably short, considering this was Sega Visions' first issue. Aptly named "mailbox" only three questions were shown, one from Australia. Considering this magazine was only published in the US it's likely Sega was scrapping the bottom of the barrel, even if the person who contacted them would likely never read the magazine's reply.

Sega Visions' first issue may not have much to show, but we need to keep in mind that at the time, Sega had a mere 8-10% of the console market. It is likely that Nintendo Power's budget exceeded that of Sega Visions' tenfold. In part 2 of this new series, I'll be taking a look at how the magazine grew during the Genesis' early years and how it built a community. This second part will cut off just before the system's peak.

Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain

Developer: Silicon Knights
Publisher: Crystal Dynamics

Generally speaking, gaming consisted of fast, arcade-like experiences with little care taken into crafting a well developed story or cinematic experiences. Of course there were exceptions to this rule, the Super Nintendo featured a strong library of RPGs while PC gaming offered a vast bouquet of adventure games and its own take on role-playing. 

These however were not the most popular genres, western sales of well established franchises like King’s Quest or Final Fantasy could not hold a candle to the popularity of Super Mario, Sonic The Hedgehog, Street Fighter 2 and other faster paced classics.
This trend began to change with the advent of 32-bit consoles, 3D gaming and optical media. Suddenly, developers were more willing to invest in intangible assets like story, lore, characters and dialog. One could claim titles like Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid laid the foundation of what gamers expected from a plot driven experience for years to come. However, there were other games who attempted to claim this crown before it was eventually jointly-shared by Squaresoft and Konami.

Blood Omen: The Legacy of Kain was perhaps one of the most serious contenders during the Playstation’s early years. Developed by the then relatively unknown Silicon Knights with support from Crystal Dynamics, Blood Omen created quite a splash with the media when it was first unveiled at E3 in 1995.

Billing itself as a mature story-driven game, players were invited to play the role of a blood-thirsty vampire whose moral compass swinged from villain to anti-hero. Blood Omen’s sales reports are conflicting at best, ranging anywhere from 300,000 to 2 million units. Regardless, it went on to spawn a successful series consisting of 5 games and a recent online spin-off.

Players take control of Kain, a nobleman murdered in cold blood who later resurrected as a fledgling vampire. Our anti-hero’s motivations are initially simple; to enact revenge on those who assassinated him and discover a cure for his newfound vampire status. The plot, lore and dialog take front and center in Blood Omen, often being a prime reason as to why both this game and series are so fondly remembered. 

Unfortunately, the narrative flow in Blood Omen often seems confused and direction-less. Kain’s motivations and persona keep shifting from repulsion of his newfound condition to adulation with no explanation as to why. Often, his stance varied so wildly and abruptly I was almost let to believe our main character suffered from bi-polar disorder. To make matters worse, the story is extremely disjointed, hastily introducing new plot elements with no warning or foreshadowing only to then quickly resolve and permanently dispose of them. In fact, most of the narrative elements provided in Blood Omen tend to function as self-contained set-pieces with a barely coherent, overarching series of events tying them together.

In the game’s defense, these serve a brilliant purpose of lore-building, I often found myself interested in learning more about its characters and locations. Places like Nuprator’s keep and Vorador’s Mansion provided a decidedly dark and gruesome experience that had me eagerly clinging for every piece of information, effectively crafting a compelling narrative while leaving enough room to let players fill the gaps themselves. 

Sadly, we are eventually called back into the main plotline, which is awkwardly presented and at times seem to have had elements removed at the last minute with little concern as to how it would affect overall flow. At one point, Kain is asked to fight a war to which he accepts, despite there being no logical motivation for him to so. In the end, our villainous anti-hero fought a war simply because he was asked to. Perhaps even more egregious is the endgame battle where a new plotpoint appears out of nowhere for the sole purpose of adding in a boss fight.

Despite all the flaws plaguing Blood Omen’s story the writing style is downright Shakespearean and surprisingly solid. This is further strengthened by Simon Templeman’s stellar delivery as the titular Kain. If our main character were played by anyone else the series would have lost one of the pillars which made it so memorable. The voice cast is generally well-rounded by veteran professionals including Richard Doyle and Tony Jay, most of which would return in future installments. Sadly, I feel these were not their best performances, most likely they were given little voice direction and as a result, characters weren’t as fleshed out as they could have been.

Blood Omen’s gameplay is reminiscent of Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda, featuring an overhead view and a focus on light puzzle solving. As our character progresses, new abilities are earned in the form of magic spells, vampiric powers and weaponry. In this regard, Blood Omen is extremely ambitious as I have yet to play a game that so accurately managed to capture the feeling of being a vampire. Kain can transform into a total of 4 forms; mist, human, wolf and bat. These carry different purposes ranging from increased speed and fast travel to avoiding enemy detection and more.

New abilities are often found in dungeons or other similar locations. The main campaign is linear in its execution and must be completed in the same exact order with each playthrough. Luckily, players who wish to venture beyond the beaten path will find an assortment of secrets to explore ranging from new magical abilities to additional items and ammo. 

As a vampire, Kain’s health is constantly draining, so regular feedings from human foes are a necessity. When an enemy is stunned or near death, our anti-hero can feed on his prey, delivering a killing blow. Civilians and chained humans can also be fed upon and unlike other NPCs, these offer no resistance. Should Kain to return to an indoor location that was previously relieved of all its occupants, they will return as specters and, if fed upon once more, these ghosts replenish mana instead of health.

Sadly, other than sating your hunger, there’s little to do in towns or villages. There are no shops or even any monetary system to speak of. Players can break into weapon smiths to steal ammo, but these never respawn, so once fully visited, there’s little point in returning to past towns. Even the villagers share very little useful information. Most times I simply ignored them.

When travelling on foot through Nosgoth, players are advised to take into consideration the time of day and weather. Unless specific upgrades are found, rain and snow actively hurt Kain while the sun weakens his attacks. 

Despite the wide range of tools available to Kain throughout his quest I rarely found myself using them. Early on, players come across the barrier spell which is essentially overpowered, protecting its caster from almost every form of harm.  Eventually, I found myself spamming this protection and killing every foe including the final boss with little regard as to tactics or strategy. This issue is further compounded when considering how easy it is to find the “heart of darkness” healing card. Needless to say, I never died in Blood Omen despite me playing fast and loose with the dangers it posed. Worst still, it wasn’t long until repetition set in; one can only murder and feed on so many villagers and monsters before the act becomes boring.

Blood Omen does not shy away from blood and gore, rather, it celebrates it. Often, spells and items dispatch foes in the most spectacularly gruesome ways, displaying their blood and innards for all to see. Even more impressive are the lighting and particle effects these create, despite the visuals being somewhat unappealing, Blood Omen occasionally delivers in eye candy. Towns and wilderness are generally plain-looking as well, though certain locations like Vorador’s mansion offer a mix of blood, gore and luxury that is a joy to behold.

Oddly enough, the game is plagued by constant load times. Entering and exiting a menu, location or are prompts a 3-5 second loading screen. This may not seem like much, but they add up after a few gameplay hours. In some cases I intentionally changed my gameplay methods so as to open the inventory as little as possible so as to avoid the ever irritating loading message. 

It’s easy to see why Blood Omen garnered a cult following, its strong lore, dark themes and quality voice acting places its production values well above the 16-bit generation. Sadly, despite the captivating lore, Blood Omen’s story is incoherent at best. Its gameplay draws cues from Legend of Zelda, but is nowhere near as polished, being plagued by repetition, long loading times and a laughably low difficulty setting. Blood Omen was once a sign of what the 32-bit generation had in store for us, but it has since been surpassed by its peers and feel into relative obscurity for a reason; it didn’t age well.

Trivia: Shortly after the release of Blood Omen, developer Silicon Knights and publisher Crystal Dynamics were involved in a legal battle over who owned the rights to the game. Crystal Dynamics won and developed the sequels without Silicon Knights' input.

- The world of Nosgoth features a rich, enticing lore
- One of the most complete experiences on what it feels like to play as a vampire
- Stellar voice acting

- Main storyline is disjointed and incoherent
- Gameplay suffers from repetition
- Lenghty, excessive loading times

Final Grade: C+

Blood Omen’s cover baffles me. The artwork itself is excellent, it’s fitting and appropriately dark for its theme. Unfortunately, it’s neighbor to a black border which takes up roughly a quarter of the cover. That is the sort of visual aesthetic associated to a low budget re-release, but that isn’t the case here. This is a first print PAL copy so why Crystal Dynamics went with this decision is beyond me. 

Speaking of the publisher, the Gex logo in the front clashes with the dark motif of Blood Omen. I understand that Gex was Crystal Dynamics’ mascot during the 90s, but these two franchises appeal to different audiences and shouldn't be together.

Inside we find the manual, disc and registration card. The manual’s cover suffers from the same flaws as that of the game’s case. Peering inside, I was disappointed it provided no additional background information, lore or concept art. Instead it explains how to play Blood Omen in fairly long detail. 

My final complaint with the game’s packaging lies with the disc’s yellow color scheme. It doesn’t seem to fit the mood created by its manual, cover or Blood Omen’s plot itself. Overall I found Blood Omen’s packaging to be a bit of an underachiever, had the cover art not been cut to fit a black border it would have stood from the crowd. Alas, this was not the case.

Packaging Grade: B-

Duck Game

I reviewed Adult Swim’s Duck Game over at Tech-Gaming.com

 Duck Game is as fast paced as it is short. With most matches lasting less than a minute it won’t be long until players have seen all fifty arenas at least twice. Considering it’s best enjoyed with a group of friends repeated playthroughs may not come as often most would like. Duck game is the best party local-multiplayer game I’ve played in a long time, and its greatest fault isn’t necessary technical, but rather that it requires a strict set of requisites to be enjoyed at its fullest.

Full Review here: http://www.tech-gaming.com/duck-game-review

Vortex Attack

I reviewed Kaleido Games’ indie Shoot’em Up, Vortex Attack over at Tech-Gaming.

Vortex Attack may not create a positive initial impression due its slow start and seemingly simplistic graphical look. However, as the difficulty builds up both concerns are eventually dispelled. In the end, reaching a score of over thirty million proved to be an extremely rewarding endeavor and one I would gladly partake in again.

Full Review HERE

Super Thunder Blade

Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Played on: Sega Mega Drive Ultimate Collection

Sega's Super Scaler Technology engine is known for powering 80s arcade classics like Outrun, Hang On, Afterburner and Space Harrier. However, some of its titles fell into relative obscurity. Often, the reason behind this was due to poor home ports in the west.

I've previously reviewed Thunder Blade for the Sega Master System and as one would expect, it was a farcry from the arcade original. It was a decent vertical SHMUP with some truly terrible and choppy 3D-ish sections.

Super Thunder Blade however was a Japanese launch title for its successor, the Mega Drive. If Sega intended to show off the power behind its new 16-bit system a proper port of Thunder blade would have stood out from the crowd. Sadly, Super Thunder Blade brings mixed results; while anyone could tell at a glance this was not running on an 8-bit system, it also made it abundantly clear the Genesis could not properly emulate its arcade counterpart.

Much to my dismay, the vertical scrolling sections found both in the arcade and Master System versions of Thunder Blade were removed. The 8-bit version lacked scaling graphics during these segments, but despite this, they were the still most entertaining part so seeing them removed  from its 16-bit descendant automatically raises a red flag. This would have been acceptable had the pseudo-3D portions remained intact, which unfortunately, they do not.

Yes, graphically, this game is leaps and bounds ahead of the Master System port, it also runs much smoother though that's not saying much. With all that said, this game is still pretty ugly, buildings look like they're paper cut outs and the scrolling is still nowhere near as fluid as one would hope. This problem becomes especially pronounced during the second stage where players are expected to dodge pillars that provide little to no reaction time.

Engaging in combat is simple but boring. All shots are aimed at where your helicopter is, conversely, you are armed with a limitless supply of seeking missiles. As a result, enemy fire can easily be avoided by circling around the screen while letting your home shots do all the work, this technique also applies to mid-level bosses making them ridiculously easy. The few times I died were most often associated with environmental hazards on level two or end-stage boss fights. 

Towards the end of a mission Super Thunder Blade shifts its perspective to that of an overhead shooter, similar to its arcade and Master System equivalents. However, during these segments your helicopter is stuck to the bottom of the screen, meaning the player is only allowed to maneuver left or right. Why Sega decided to limit player control like this is beyond me. Another strange design decision lies with its difficulty curve. The difficulty reaches its apex at level two, once past that hurdle Super Thunder Blade becomes relatively easy.

Sadly, there is little else to say about the game. With only four short missions, Super Thunder Blade can be finished in under half an hour and considering there are no power-ups to pick I found myself simply circling around the screen and taking out everything in my path.

From a technical standpoint, Super Thunder Blade features impressive visuals which could never be reproduced by Nintendo's Famicom. On one hand it showed just what the Sega Mega Drive/ Genesis was capable of, but it was just as successful in displaying its limitations. It's true games like Outrun and Panorama Cotton did a much better job at pushing the pseudo-3D limits of Sega's blast processing machine, but these would not be launched for another three and six years respectively. In the end, I think it speaks volumes that I would rather play the 8-bit version instead of its 16-bit sequel.

Trivia: Despite Thunder Blade being a fairly popular arcade game in the 80s it wasn't until 2015 that western audiences finally received an arcade-perfect port.

- As a Japanese launch game for the Mega Drive it can be considered a historic title
- Scaling graphics hold a certain charm despite being subpar by Genesis standards

- Graphically below average when compared to latter Genesis/ Mega Drive titles
- Choppy scaling effects make it difficult to avoid environmental hazards
- Only four levels which can be finished in under half an hour

Final Grade: D