Pacing the Cage

All about old-school video games. Reviews, lists and more.

Archive for August, 2008

Retro Game Review: Ballblazer

Posted by ptcgaming on August 30, 2008

Soccer in the future may look something like this.

Platform: Atari 7800 ProSystem
Released: 1984 (original)
Developer: Lucasfilm Games
Background: Ballblazer was the first video game developed by Lucasfilm, originally for Atari’s 8-bit systems. It was a 1 or 2-player game in a 3D format. This was actually a futuristic “sports” game with simple rules: You took control of one of the rotofoils and attempted to grab the ball, or Plasmorb, with the invisible beam on the front. The idea was to put the Plasmorb through the opponent’s goal, which moved back and forth horizontally across the baseline – placing it got you one point, while shooting it got you two. As you score more goals, the goal gets more and more narrow. The game ends when the clock expires or one player scores 10 goals. One of the features of Ballblazer seen in many of today’s multiplayer games is split-screen action from two separate first-person views.
Graphics: 4.5/5
Keep in mind we’re talking about the Atari 7800 here, so you’re not going to get better graphics except for maybe Pole Position II or the 7800 version of Ms. Pac-Man, which is extremely close to the arcade version. One of the things you’ll notice when playing Ballblazer is there’s no screen flickering or anything like that.
Sound: 5/5
Hands-down the best music on any early Atari console game. I read somewhere a reviewer said it sounded like John Coltrane. It’s not, but the jazzy tune that plays during the game is one of a kind. The sounds when you fire the ball or bump your opponent’s rotofoil are very well executed, too.
Controls: 5/5
The controls are simple: The joystick moves you, the button fires the Plasmorb. When your opponent has the Plasmorb, you can press the button to try to steal it away.
Gameplay: 5/5
This game runs so smooth, you’d be surprised today it was being played on such an old system. And despite its simplicity, it’s a lot of fun. While you can play against the computer, it’s best when going up against one of your friends. There weren’t many (if any) split-screen multiplayer games with first-person perspectives around at the time, so this game offered a unique gaming experience.
Overall: 4.875/5
In a nutshell, this game is fantastic. I spent many hours when I was younger playing Ballblazer. I used to use a third-party controller on my 7800 that looked like the yoke for a fighter jet with a trigger button for your index finger. I always thought the 7800 was an under appreciated system, especially since it had to compete with the original NES and Sega MasterSystem. But Ballblazer showed gamers the best Atari had to offer at the time. With a company like Lucasfilm developing the game, would you expect anything less?

Posted in Atari, Reviews | Leave a Comment »

No patches required

Posted by ptcgaming on August 29, 2008

Early Super Mario Bros. games may have had their little quirks, but we didn’t dare ask for a way to fix them.

Patches. Patches. More patches. Why does it seem almost every day we’re hearing about some kind of glitch (sometimes even a fatal one) that one of the latest, greatest (?) consoles or one of their games is having. Example: Just this morning, I saw a story about how Ninja Gaiden II for the Xbox 360 has sold more than a million copies, touting Microsoft and Tecmo for reaching this milestone. Still, the forum associated with the story managed to creep into the direction of – surprise! – patches. I don’t own the game or a 360, but apparently one guy knew of a patch that messed the game up, while another suggested the game needed patching to fix some of its quirks.
Now I don’t know how long these people have been playing video games, but when I was growing up in the era of Atari and NES consoles, glitches were cool. They were those little tricks we actually tried to make the game do – Like how on Excitebike you could make your bike jump out the top of the screen and come out the bottom. Or how on Super Mario Bros., you could jump on that Koopa shell like a thousand times and get a ton of extra lives. We lived for those things.
Today, games have to be too perfect. And when they’re not, people want a fix for it. While I enjoyed the little quirks of video games of old, I can understand the pro-patch player’s argument. If I spent more than 300 bucks on a console and 60 more on a game for it, I’d want nothing short of perfection as well. But at 8 or even 16 bits, perfection was quite difficult to come by.
Any search engine will lead you to pages upon pages of glitches and cheats for video games, both old and new. But in 1985, there wasn’t any way to download a software patch for a console game. What you got was what you got. With today’s online access via console, fixing the little snafus developers don’t see right away is a simple task. Me, well, I needed Justin Bailey’s help and the Mega Man “pause” trick, too.

Posted in Miscellaneous | 1 Comment »

What’s new at Pacing the Cage

Posted by ptcgaming on August 28, 2008

Hi everyone! I’ve finished renovating the site (for now), and I invite you to look around at the new Pacing the Cage! There might be some minor tweaks done in the future, but for now things will stay this way. I wanted to make this site easy to read and navigate while giving it a simpler look. Having spent the last few years working in the newspaper industry, I like the look of black copy on white. As always, feel free to comment on what you see or read here. Some highlights of the site include:

  • The video game news ticker is still at the top of the page. There, you can stay current on what’s going on the world of video games, both new and old. You can also subscribe to this blog by accessing the link in the right-hand column. Access to every column in this blog is still available on the right side, too.
  • I’ve added links to the Pacing the Cage MySpace page and MyBlogLog site, which can be found under the “Interactive” header.
  • Be sure to check out MSNBC’s Top 5 games widget down toward the bottom of the right column.
  • The MyBlogLog visitor widget has been removed.
  • My profile and the “Blogs I’m Reading” modules have been edited.
  • Some of the modules along the right side have been rearranged, and the blog directory icons have been moved to the bottom of the page.

Have fun looking around, and thanks for reading!

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Pacing the Cage undergoing renovation

Posted by ptcgaming on August 28, 2008

I’m in the process of tweaking the PtC blog, so if the page looks a little funny for the time being you’ll know why. The idea is to create a simple, easy to read look. I’ll fill everyone in on some of the new changes once they’re done. Sorry for the inconvenience in the meantime.

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Top 10: Classic video game dynasties

Posted by ptcgaming on August 27, 2008

The Donkey Kong series represents the best in never getting old.

No matter how many sequels some video game companies come out with, many never get old (while some do, but that’s another topic for another time). One of the best things about long-running series is being able to see new innovations that show up with each new release. Many famous series are among gaming’s biggest sellers and have been around since video games were first made readily aavilable for the home.
Here are my top 10 video game dynasties from the 16-bit era and back. While some of these franchises have newer installments, I’m only listing some of the 16-bit and lower titles. By the way, I’m not listing every title for every franchise, because for some I might be typing all day! And as always, your comments are welcome.
10: Bases Loaded
Includes: Bases Loaded 1, 2, 3, 4; Super Bases Loaded 1, 2, 3
The Bases Loaded series was the best set of baseball games for the NES, and only World Series Baseball for the Sega Genesis rivaled it during the 16-bit age. And some titles features Ryne Sandberg on the cover, which was pretty cool in the late 1980s.
9: Street Fighter II
Includes: The World Warrior, Turbo, Champion Edition, Special Champion Edition, Super SF II, SF II Turbo: Hyper Fighting
The classic 2D fighting game was champion of the 16-bit era. The Genesis version was ideal if you had the 6-button controller, which was set up just like the arcade configuration.
8: Contra
Includes: Contra, Super C, Contra III: The Alien Wars, Super Contra, Contra Force
Contra was “run and gun” gameplay at its best, as stopping for too long would get you killed. The “Konami Code” was a necessity when playing the ultra-difficult first game in the series.
7: Ninja Gaiden
Includes: Ninja Gaiden, NG II: The Dark Sword of Chaos, NG III: The Ancient Ship of Doom
What made Ninja Gaiden games, especially the first one, so great was the level of difficulty. Ryu’s adventures were anything but a cakewalk, and the original could be downright frustrating at times.
6: John Madden Football/Madden NFL xx
Includes: Any Madden game up to the end of the 16-bit era
John Madden Football, in its infancy, was actually more fun than it is today. From the obscure team names (New Jersey, anyone?), to the ambulance crushing anyone in its path to rescue the injured player, to Barry Sanders destroying defenses, these were the franchises glory years.
5: Mega Man
Includes: Mega Man 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, Xtreme, X, X2, X3, The Wily Wars
I wish I could rank Mega Man higher. I wish it because of how MM always felt so familiar, yet so different. The first installment was punishing (the “pause” trick definitely helps), but doesn’t lose points for that. What it does lose points for, however, is the downright awful North American covers for Mega Man 1 and 2. Note to artists: Mega Man doesn’t carry a cap gun!
4: The Legend of Zelda
Includes: The Legend of Zelda, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, A Link to the Past, Link’s Awakening, Oracle of Ages/Seasons
The original is a classic, the second not so much, the SNES title is best in the series (Sorry Ocarina fans, your game is overrated) and the Game Boy editions are solid. In fact, if you’ve never played Link’s Awakening and are tired of fighting Ganon every time, I highly suggest trying it.
3: Super Mario Bros.
Includes: Super Mario Bros. 1, 2, 3; Super Mario World 1, 2; Super Mario Land 1, 2, 3; The Lost Levels; Super Mario RPG
Super Mario Bros. 3 is, hands-down, the best overall game for the NES. The gameplay, graphics and music can’t be beat. The original SMB was groundbreaking, and SMB 2 in North America was like an acid trip, while SMB 2 in Japan (Lost Levels) made you pull your hair out. All of the SNES Mario titles were solid, too, but couldn’t stack up to SMB 3.
2: Sonic the Hedgehog
Includes: Sonic the Hedgehog 1, 2, 3; Sonic and Knuckles; Sonic CD; Sonic Spinball
The anti-Mario gets the nod over SMB for its display of raw 16-bit power. Its music, speed and graphics trumped Mario, even when the plumber entered the 16-bit arena. Spinball was horrible and took away what made Sonic fun, but the other titiles provided gamers with hours of it. A fresh storyline that didn’t include Bowser made the original Sonic the preferred choice for me.
1: Donkey Kong
Included: Donkey Kong; Donkey Kong Jr.; Donkey Kong 3; Donkey Kong Country 1, 2, 3; Donkey Kong Land 1, 2, 3
Where to begin? How about with a little carpenter named Jumpman, er, Mario. That’s right, Mario used to be a carpenter but changed his trade. Speaking of which, major points have to go out for making Mario the bad guy (Jr.). The original DK and Jr. have been ported an insane number of times, and Mario is in, what, like a bazillion games now. Then there’s Donkey Kong Country. DKC made a 16-bit system look like a PlayStation on your TV, made the gorilla the hero and made a giant wad of cash off it. Plus, since Mario wasn’t officially “Mario” yet, DK has been around longer than anyone on this list. Shigeru Miyamoto, please step up and accept your crown!

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Is this really the worst game EVER?

Posted by ptcgaming on August 26, 2008

When talking about the worst video games of all time, this little nugget always seems to come to mind.

You’ve got to give Howard Scott Warshaw credit. For one infamous game he designed, Warshaw has endured more criticism than for the great Atari 2600 titles he created, including Yars’ Revenge and Raiders of the Lost Ark. It took four to five months for him to create Yars’ Revenge. He only had five weeks to create the video game adaptation of E.T. the Extra Terrestrial.

The resulting product, which he defends, has been the butt of video game jokes for more than 20 years. We all know that names – “Worst Video Game of All Time” or “Reason for the Video Game Crash of the Early 1980s.” Many saw E.T. as a game where you aimlessly roamed about and fell into holes at random. And if that guy in the raincoat got a hold of your behind, you were in trouble. That other guy wanted to get you, too.

But is E.T. really that bad, or is it just misunderstood? To come up with the answer, let’s look at this as a puzzle and see if all the pieces fit together (no pun intended).

  • Landscape – The entire game is made up of six screens, all of which allow you to walk in four directions to an adjoining screen. Think of it as walking around a cube, with each side of the cube (top and bottom included) as a separate screen. That’ll get you over the “wandering aimlessly part.”
  • The idea – The game’s objective is pretty much the same as the movie. You must collect the pieces of the phone, call home and meet the spaceship that’s here to pick you up.
  • Gameplay – Pieces of the phone are located in selected “holes” or “wells” in the landscape. You fall into a hole, pick up the piece and hover back up to the main screen. When you find all the pieces, you must call the spaceship back (Hint: Call from the forest). Actually, the status bar at the top of the screen will tell you when you’re in the right spot. And don’t get caught by the FBI guy or scientist: The FBI dude will take your phone parts; the scientist will take you. You can eat Reese’s Pieces to regain energy, and Elliot can also help you in your quest.

Believe it or not, that’s pretty much it. If you know what you’re supposed to be doing, the game is pretty easy and can be completed in just about 10-15 minutes or so. If you have no idea what you’re supposed to do, then yes, you probably think this is the stupidest thing to be encased in plastic. If you break the game down, like I just did, it really sounds easy and not quite so dumb. E.T. also features different skill levels to make the game more of a challenge.

I know there are some of you who will still think this game is terrible even after reading this, but you should sit back and ask yourself, “Is it really as bad as I thought before?”

Want to see more worst of the worst? Just click here for a listing of some of the lowest-rated games of all time.

Posted in Atari | Leave a Comment »

Mouth or moustache? The mystery deepens

Posted by ptcgaming on August 20, 2008

This guy’s face has been a center of controversy for more than 20 years.

Believe it or not, fighting games did exist prior to Street Fighter II. In fact, the original Street Fighter, though beautiful to look at when it debuted, was mechanically terrible.

One of the more popular early fighting games was Karate Champ, born at the arcade and later ported to the NES. Hand-to-hand combat was simple, choppy and not all that great, but there wasn’t anything better, really. You had two identical guys fighting each other, one clad in white and the other in red (I’ve read Ken and Ryu were based on these guys). But despite the game’s simplicity, one complex dilemma remains: What is that on the sensei/referee’s face?

If he’s frowning, he’s a Richard Marx wannabe; if it’s a moustache, he’s Gene Shalat. Either way, I’m not sure anyone knows what’s going on with this guy.
The argument for it being a frown: It would look pretty funny to have a guy looking face-on to the camera with huge eyebrows, eyes and no nose. I mean, it worked for The Blank in Dick Tracy, why not this guy? And while we’re at it, why is this guy doing the peepee dance?

The moustache argument: Take a look at the two fighters. They both have abnormally huge noses and no mouths. So what makes this guy so special he gets a mouth? (Note the Ken and Ryu resemblance between them) Also, if his frown is that big, then he has a humongous mouth! I mean this guy can swallow cantaloupes without having to bite them. Joey Chestnut would be proud.
So what is the deal with this guy? Does anyone really know what that is on his face? I mean, big hair and a huge moustache may have been all the rage in the 1980s, and maybe perhaps the video game gods were just going with the times.

Posted in Miscellaneous | 2 Comments »

The Code

Posted by ptcgaming on August 18, 2008

The Konami Code, as shown by our friends at Wikipedia.

It’s as synonymous with 80s video gaming as Mario and Luigi. It’s probably the biggest reason we love to play Contra so much. Yet, the “Konami Code” stretches far beyond 30 lives.
Oh yes, the code goes far beyond the original NES. Much farther.
In fact, the code is used in games on the NES, Super NES, Sony PlayStation and even mobile phones. And the numerous games that utilize it go far beyond even the realm of Konami. A list of games where the code can be used is found here.
A little bit of video gaming history: The code was created back in 1985 by Kazuhisa Hashimoto while designing the NES port of the game Gradius. Inputting the code gives players all the power-ups, which normally you’d gradually collect during the game.
The rest is history. The code spread like wildfire.
For those of us who became gamers back in the 1980s, the Konami Code was a part of our video game lives and to this day runs through our blood. Lest we never forget “The Code.”

Posted in Retro Gaming | 1 Comment »

Fun and excitin’ ridin’, jumpin’, bobbin’ and weavin’

Posted by ptcgaming on August 14, 2008

Excitebike was, in a word, exciting. Even though the number of tracks was limited, the game was still tons of fun.

Crank up the engine, hit the track and go back to 1985! Excitebike was one of the Nintendo Entertainment System’s oldest original titles, and today the game is still enjoyed by many, myself included.

There is no underlying story or character in Excitebike. You take control of an unnamed rider and race him (or her) to the best time possible, hopefully qualifying for the Excitebike race, a replay of the track you just hammered only more difficult. My friend Kevin was disappointed you couldn’t actually win the super-duper Excitebike in the NES version, which I believe you could at the arcade. If anyone knows any different, let me know.

While tackling the predesigned tracks was fun, I spent lots of time building my own tracks. I don’t know if this was changed in any of the game’s re releases, but you could place a bunch of those little ramps on the track, jump out of the top of the screen and come out at the bottom.

One of my favorite things about the game is the graphics. Even though this game was released in 1985 in North America, the track looks pretty sharp and you can tell it’s actually a guy riding a motorbike. The haystacks and camera guys are a nice touch, too.

If you still have an NES, or own a system that allows you to purchase a release of the game, I highly suggest it. It’s unlockable in Excitebike 64 (GCN) and Animal Crossing (GCN). It’s also available for Game Boy Advance.

Posted in NES, Retro Gaming | 2 Comments »

Top 10: Video game characters as Summer Olympians

Posted by ptcgaming on August 13, 2008

With the Summer Olympics in full swing, I decided to offer a list of video game characters from the past who’d make great Olympic athletes. I know some of your favorites will be left off the list, so as always, feel free to suggest some entries of your own.

10. The Special Operations Soldier from Rush’n Attack: This guy would make a great distance runner, and I can imagine him stealing one of those flame throwers to light the Olympic Flame during the opening ceremonies.

9. Pit (Kid Icarus): Imagine having a guy with Pit’s archery skills helping the U.S. win the gold. He evn looks the part of an ancient Olympian.

8. Anyone on fire on NBA Jam: Settling for bronze would never be an issue when you’re sinking buckets from 80 feet away. And watching the ball fly through the air like a comet would be awesome, too.

7. Balrog (North American version of Street Fighter II: The World Warrior): Those little white spots on Olympic fighter’s boxing gloves won’t matter when this guy starts pummelling you. Chances are after about 30 seconds you’ll be running for the exit.

6. Pitfall Harry (Pitfall!): Guy can run, jump, swing and steal your gold. Start him off with a round of gymnastics, and he’s still fresh enough for some distance running.

5. Little Mac (Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!): The Olympics are full of great stories, and what a story it would be for the little 107 lb. guy from the Bronx to take the gold over his much larger opponents.

4. Luigi (North American version of Super Mario Bros. 2): Want to win the gold in the high jump and long jump? Recruit this guy immediately. Wins spot over Princess Peach for being able to jump high as well as far.

3. Bowser (Super Mario Bros. 3): The SMB strongman villain would be a nice fit for either weightlifting, wrestling, shot put or a combination of the three. Though despised throughout the Mushroom Kingdom, Bowser would be a great addition to the Olympic roster.

2. Sonic the Hedgehog: Chances are Sonic would sweep all running events, especially at the shorter distances. The other runners would finally reach the finish line to find Sonic laying on the ground doing that taunt pose.

1. Samus Aran (Metroid): The ultimate endurance athlete. Keep in mind the original Metroid is actually a continuous game with no pauses or cut scenes unless you die or turn the game off. Realistically, you can play the game from beginning to end without pausing or quitting the game. She can do it all – runs, jumps, shoots, rolls and drops bombs without even stopping for a drink. Now that’s an athlete!

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