Thursday, July 11, 2019

"Blazing Chrome" Review

Playing "Blazing Chrome" is like stepping into a warp zone that takes you back to 1992. A Super Nintendo game through and through, it pits you alone against a nest of alien creatures, robots and ninjas with a constant auto-fire gun and the ability to sprint and cling to wires at will.

This is "Contra" but through the dream lens that those who first encountered it with the wide-eyed expectations of a youthful love for run-and-gun shoot-em-ups.

Developer JoyMasher pays loving homage to the likes of "Contra" and "Metal Slug" with reverent glee, as well as a determined will to push the genre forward while keeping it true to its roots.

Everything from the graphics to level design and character animations sticks strictly to 16-bit limitations -- at least on the surface. Underneath the nostalgic facade lies a robust tapestry of circuitry that makes the game more stable, inventive and intense than Konami developers at their peak could ever approach.

A pure joy to play, "Blazing Chrome" is also unfettered hellfire. Even at its lowest difficulty level, there are stiff, unforgiving challenges in the game that will frustrate you so much you'll slam your controller down on the couch in frustration. Only, of course, to end up picking it back up a few minutes later once you've concocted a new strategy.

You play as either a robotic insurgent or a human resistance fighter, but no matter who you choose your survival will depend on your sense of timing, ability to just on the fly to demands of stress and overwhelming odds, as well as your ability to time out your gun upgrades and adapt them to the needs of whatever obstacles confront you.

The successes in "Blazing Chrome" may not come easy, but they come in such a thoroughly satisfying manner that you become filled with the resolve it will take to march on to the next seemingly impossible deathtrap.

They sure don't make 'em like "Blazing Chrome" anymore. Hell, they never really did make 'em this good anyway.

Publisher provided review code.

"Skulls of the Shogun: Bone-A-Fide Edition"

Guiding spirits of fallen samurai warriors to sweet vengeance, you put your turn-based strategy skills to the test in "Skulls of the Shogun."

A comic book-influenced art style, slyly humorous writing, a classic martial arts film-inspired soundtrack and a slick, engaging combat system makes the game hard to put down.

Originally released on the Xbox 360 in 2013, "Skulls  of the Shogun" proved enthralling enough to merit a rerelease on current-gen consoles four years ago in the "Bone-A-Fide Edition."

Now it's out on Switch, which makes excellent use of the game's RPG lite sensibilities in both handheld and docked modes.

Developer 17-Bit changes little in the structure and look of the solid foundation, adapting the game to the Switch's control setup with elegance and precision.

Multiplayer is at the forefront, with up to four players able to throw down in network matches. For those who'd rather go solo, the standard campaign is there to help you hone your skills.

Arguably the strongest of the "Skulls of the Shogun" iterations, the Switch version makes the game seem somehow as fresh and vital as it was upon original release. The sassy death-obsessed game has found new life yet again.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

"Sea of Solitude" Review

There are purposes for games that are higher than simple entertainment. "Sea of Solitude" marks a mature new direction for gaming as a whole. The fact that an experimental indie such as this was released by EA shows the level of innovation at play in the industry.

Set inside the damaged pscyhe of a woman suffering through mental issues, "Sea of Solitude" is an emotionally challenging voyage. It shatters preset conceptions of what a game should be by revealing what a game should be.

Freeform and meditative as you drift along the point-and-direct adventure finds you scampering among dilapidated buildings, rowing a boat through flooded streets or confronting tentacle-waving beasts.

Symbolism abounds, with many on-the-nose messages mixed with a smattering of obtuse riddles. Taken as a whole, the voyage makes up for what it lacks in challenge by adding an all-consuming dramatic narrative.

Developer Jo-Mei Games has an empathetic command of its touch subject matter. orchestrating elegiac voiceover blended wtih haunting visuals amd somber music. The mix, combined with a freeform stroll on a guided path, makes for a fascinating and unique trip, albeit a bleak one.

The role of a video game as therapy has rarely come on display in greater effect than it does here. "Sea of Solitude" is a shuddering yet critical walk on the long, slow path to change and redemption.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, July 08, 2019

Book Report: "The Caine Mutiny"

The Caine MutinyThe Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

With passionate storytelling, an easy command of complex military detail and an effortless sensitivity for power dynamics and emotional exchanges, Herman Wouk spins a devastating and tense tale internal and external conflict brought to a head while at war on a Naval vessel.

"The Caine Mutiny" is an example of a tale best known as a classic movie that is blown out of the water by its literary source material. Woulk's story covers far more ground than the film, transplanting the reader into the dark, conflicted minds of its power players. The book also takes a far broader look at the mental conditions afflicting the infamous Commander Queeg, who writes the almanac for incompetent management with each of his controlling, obsessive quirks.

At the same time a harsh, unforgiving wartime satire, a gritty tale of maritime survival and an awkward coming-of-age opus, the book navigates the dark, squall-plagued depths of the human psyche. As the crew conspires to overthrow their cruel, incompetent commander, there are no wholesale victories or defeats, but shades of triumph laced with painful sacrifice burdened with sprawling consequences.

Kevin Pariseau's narration in the Audible version is note-perfect. His trembling unease inside Queeg's skin rivals Humphrey Bogart's Oscar-nominated turn, and the subtle ways he differentiates each character's delivery infuses the story with layers of depth and nuance.

Endlessly captivating and thoroughly intriguing, "The Caine Mutiny" is an essential exploration of bureaucratic obedience, command, coping and rebellion. It docks in your psyche and sets your intellect on a chillingly thrilling course.

View all my reviews

Thursday, July 04, 2019

"Contra Anniversary Collection" Review

Such was the magic of the "Contra" games that it simply wasn't enough of a thrill to beat them once, even if you needed the legendary Konami code to scam enough extra lives to hump your way through.

Repeated, refined runs were the order of the day. Either solo or with a buddy in innovative multiplayer, it was every bit as exciting to spread-blast your way through the nests of alien soldiers and megaliths.

Konami's "Contra Anniversary Collection" brings back the sadly neglected franchise, resurrecting the run-and-gun action that entranced a generation of gamers into the ultra-macho, mano-a-alieno shootouts.

Included in the anthology are 10 games, the highlights of which include North American, Japanese and arcade versions of the original "Contra," the incomparable SNES gems "Super C" and "Contra III: The Alien Wars," the Genesis releases "Contra: Hard Corps" and "Probotector." Each of the entries is an exact replica of their original 1980s and 90s releases.

Each of the entries sticks to the same glorious formula: You play as a muscled hero who wields an upgradeable blaster, jumping, rolling and ducking as you lay waste to increasingly tough and aggressive enemies.

There's a balletic grace and well-choreographed rhythm to each of the levels. This is the sort of game design that wrote the textbook on pacing, enemy placement and power-up distribution.

Even tougher than the stubborn, half screen-sized bosses is the decision to choose which "Contra" game to play first. "The Alien Wars" has a soft place in my heart, and was a regular play-through from middle school through college for me. Now that this collection has deployed the game on my radar once more, it's earned a spot in my regular rotation again.

Publisher provided review code.

"Castlevania Anniversary Collection" Review

Before Metroidvania was a thing, there were just the Metroid and Castlevania series. If you play the old "Castlevania" games, you see the pieces slowly fall into place, as the series evolved from a grim platformer to an exploration-based pseudo-RPG with upgrades, branching paths and rich storylines.

To play those old games these days, it took the patience and bravery of a Belmont to go hunting for antique cartridges and consoles. Now it's gotten a whole lot easier -- and cheaper.

Part of the ongoing series of releases that pay tribute to the 50th anniversary of Konami, "Castlevania Anniversary Collection" rounds up the old-school console and handheld releases on which the series' legacy was built.

Though some may gripe that the PlayStation-era games aren't included, what's here is more than enough to satisfy those who grew up in the 1980s and 90s and happily spent their childhood struggling to inch their way through the notoriously difficult whip-wielding adventures.

You get eight games in the collection, including the NES trilogy, the groundbreaking "Super Castlevania IV" from SNES, two GameBoy spinoffs and the never-before-released-in-English "Kid Dracula."

As an added bonus, there's also the illustrated e-book "History of Castlevania: Book of the Crescent Moon."

Each of the games is a pixel-perfect replication of the original, complete with occasional scan lines and a 4:3 aspect ratio. A nostalgic blast from the glorious past, the games are every bit as challenging, intimidating and inviograting as they were upon release.

Modern gamers may be shocked to find just how unforgiving and cruel the first "Castlevania" games were. Even those who don't blink at the likes of "Dark Souls" games will find their going tough. Trial-and-error, studiously practiced reactions and uncanny strategic adjustments are required to avoid swift death.

In many ways, of course, it's good that game design moved well past the old "Castlevania" models. While it may be easier and more satisfying to live in the era of autosaves, checkpoints and tutorials, it's a thrill to travel back to an era before such compromises existed and it was just a grudge match between you and a pixelated Drac.

Publisher provided review code.