Game Review: Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Master System)

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Back in the early 1990’s, Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog was a top-speed sensation – gorgeous, dazzling, kinetic… it was a sheer thrill to play. All of a sudden, Super Mario Bros. seemed very old hat. I know, I know, we were wrong – the plumber would ultimately win the war, but who can be blamed for falling for the blue one’s thrills back then? Besides, time has been exceptionally kind to both sides. I’ve played Sonic recently and it really still is a joy – slick, sleek and super-smooth, full of inventive levels, eye-popping graphics, wonderful music and thrillingly fast gameplay.

Oh, did I mention that I’ve been referring to the Mega Drive (MD) version? That’s what most people think of when they think of Sonic.

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In comparison, the version of Sonic the Hedgehog that was released for the Sega Master System (MS) was a different kettle of fish (or should I say bag of hedgehogs?). For one thing, it was a lot more sedate. Because the MS was half as powerful as the MD, it couldn’t hope to emulate its big brother’s speed and complexity. Stuff like the beloved loop-de-loops, the wild and wacky bonus stages and the torrent of rings that were released whenever you sat on a spike were nowhere to be found on the MS. Therefore, instead of weakly porting the MD, the developers of MS Sonic decided to create its own game entirely.

I suppose you could say that things felt a lot less quintessentially Sonic on the MS, but it was still a wonderful game, a really great platformer and, although no game-changer like the MD, a smaller, cosier experience that was very charming indeed. The only real criticism you could have against it were that it simply wasn’t as good as the MD. For those of us who couldn’t afford Mega Drives however, it was a game we took to our hearts, and anyway, regardless of which of the two consoles you had, by the time Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was due to come out, hedgehog hype was at fever pitch. No one was disappointed when the big release date came. Critics praised both versions to the skies – obviously the MD version was the one that got all the attention. Why? Well it was just like the first one but faster, harder, better, stronger… and it had Tails!

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We all loved Tails back then, the little two-tailed fox. On top of all of this, you had two-player split screen! This was very, very cool back  in 1992, even if the picture looked stupidly squashed and the slowdown was a pain in the arse. For the most part, the game was a total success. Come to think of it, apart from a few neat extras and those crazy halfpipe bonus stages, Sonic 2 was essentially more of the same of Sonic, but with bells on. Nothing wrong with that, everybody agreed.

Compare all of that to the MS version of Sonic 2, which, like the first MS game, seemed so small next to the MD. It belatedly delivered the loop-de-loops, but loop-de-loops were so last year. This year it was all about the spindash, where Sonic could attain instant super-speed just by pressing down and one of the main buttons. It was a novel addition to the MD Sonic 2 that made it even faster than its predecessor. Lucky Mega Drive owners, eh?

Oh well, at least there was Tails to look forward to in the MS version. Right?

Right?

I mean, he’s on the front cover of the game!

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Eeek. Sorry, no Tails. How embarrassing.

No two-player either. Instead, the MS plot circled around rescuing Tails from the clutches of Dr. Robotnik – we see the moustachioed bastard flying off with the poor fox in the pre-title sequence. Oddly, each zone’s title card featured an image of Sonic within the level with Tails in tow, even though at no point in the game can you actually play the latter. To be honest, I didn’t care about not being able to play Tails. The Mega Drive seemed so out of reach that there was no point getting worked up over it. I had a Master System with its own Sonic 2, so let’s play!

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To summarise, we get six zones (seven if you get all the coveted Chaos Emeralds), each with three acts. You know the score – collect the rings, don’t get killed, reach the end, etc. If you get hit, you lose the rings. If you get hit again without any rings, you’re dead. There are no rings in the third act, so be extra careful. Chaos Emeralds, like in the first MS Sonic, were not to be won during special stages but to be discovered somewhere in the zones themselves. In fact, special stages were absent entirely from this sequel.

I’ll be making the odd reference here to the Game Gear (GG) version of Sonic 2, which was almost the same as the MS, except for some differences in execution which made it a lot trickier to master.

Zone 1: Underground

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A Sonic game that didn’t begin in a pleasant, greeny/emeraldy, hilly environment? Now there’s a reason to love this game right from the off. However, despite the urgency of the main theme and the abundance of spikes, this is still an accessible, easy first zone. The mine cart is a novel touch, although you don’t actually get to control its speed, so you’re pretty much a captive passenger. Just make sure you jump off at the right time. The build up to the final boss is illogical – Sonic flies downwards towards lava/certain death, only for Robotnik to ‘rescue’ him so that he can be placed in the firing line of one of the easiest bosses in gaming history – a crab/ant that can’t move and some bouncing balls that are hurled in your direction but are so easily avoidable that they only wind up hitting the boss. Of course, this boss is only a cinch if you’re playing the MS version. The GG version is another story entirely. More on that later.

Zone 2: Sky High

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A bit more serene, this one. The first act is a total doddle, aside from a few blind jumps near the start. One the plus side there’s plenty of rings later on to make up for that life you probably just lost. We get another novel mode of transportation – the hang glider – but this has proved to be a controversial addition to the Sonic canon, mainly because it’s so difficult to control. Once you get the hang of it (chortle, chortle), it’s pretty simple, if far from the ethereal, joyous experience it could have been. Simply keep tapping the left pad and you’re sorted.

Act 2, with its dark, rain-swept skies and colourful platforms, is even better looking, but don’t bother with the glider. The Chaos Emerald is one of the trickiest to obtain – it’s all a matter of recognising which clouds amongst the sky are actually spring-loaded. If you do insist on using the glider, whatever you do, don’t use it on the lower section of the level later on, a route which unfortunately appears to be the only one available at first. Try higher up and test some of those clouds out instead. The boss is a lot more challenging and satisfying than the first one – to begin with we get two sets of four little robot birdies (don’t get complacent, it’s easy to get killed here) and then you drop to a lower level where a big robot mother bird who shoots out fireballs and has four little eggs that periodically hatch out more robo-chicks. Kill the eggs first, then the mother.

Zone 3: Aqua Lake

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A very nice looking level, full of nice cool blues and greens, and notable for finally getting the loop-de-loops from the MD onto the MS for the first time, as well as a delightful new bit where you can skip over the water like a stone. The almost entirely underwater second act is substantially different from the first – with its darker palette (green on the MS, blue on the GG) and trickier level design it’s more like the Labyrinth Zone from the first game. The meanest bits are when you must survive inside a bubble and float upwards past darting spears and pouncing monsters without bursting. If you do, it’s all the way back down to the bottom. In the GG version this can prove particularly tough. There are also a couple of mazes which send you hurtling towards the exit with seemingly no control over Sonic – however, if you keep the D-pad held down in advance, you can take your own route, which is handy given that the third Chaos Emerald is hidden somewhere in the second one. I The final boss is ridiculously easy – a seal blows up a bubble and all you have to do is sit on its face every time!

Zone 4: Green Hills

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Graphically, this is a significant improvement from its equivalent on the first MS Sonic -check out those colours! Rumour has it that this was going to be the first zone, which would account for how easy the first two acts are. I don’t think I’ve ever played a pair of Sonic levels with more available rings and extra lives. However, if it was at any point tipped to be the first zone, it was probably the realisation of how extremely tricky the last act was that finally got it moved to later on in the game. Seriously, this level is utterly notorious amongst gamers for just how unfair it is, although much of that reputation is down to the GG version. Saying that, the MS take is no slouch – to put it nicely, there are quite a few blind jumps, so all those lives you stocked up on in the first two acts will be needed to trial-and-error your way to the end. The boss – a bull that turns into a killer ball and comes at you in a manner of different ways – is pretty tough and will keep you on your toes. Incidentally, the music in this zone became retrospectively famous in Sonic quarters for being an instrumental rehearsal for what would be ‘Toot Toot Sonic Warrior/You Can Do Anything’, the opening song from Mega CD game Sonic CD.

Zone 5: Gimmick Mt.

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There’s plenty of variety in Sonic 2’s zones, and this keeps the freshness going – here we’re in an industrial world that with a steely, purple look. The mine carts are back, but we’ve got something new in the form of some oversized spinning CDs that you leap on to and gather enough momentum from to propel yourself up to higher platforms. Mastering this is a little awkward to handle at first, but once you’ve worked it out you’ll be on a roll. Or should I say spin? This zone is pretty unique in that it features an act which may be the only one where you finish the zone by passing the checkpoint from the right instead of the left. Seriously, it’ll make you question your reality, Inception-style. The boss is a metal bull that rams the side of the screen so hard it knocks itself out for a moment or two – this is when you bounce on the bastard, but be quick, because soon enough it’ll produce spikes on its back sharp enough to kill you. Oh, and the reverberations from his knock-out will cause part of the ceiling to fall down. Avoid that too. PS: This zone features the introduction of these little bombs-on-legs blighters which are a pain in the arse, more so in the next zone..

Zone 6: Scrambled Egg

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This is only the final zone if you haven’t collected all five Chaos Emeralds. I love the look of this one. It’s set in what looks like a cave range in outer space, with glittering coloured lights. Okay, let’s get the worst thing out of the way – those little bombs on legs are a bloody nuisance. You have to get close enough for it to set itself off, but then you have to rapidly jump back to the preceding platform to avoid its blast. And that doesn’t always work out so well. There’s also the return of the mazes from Aqua Lake, except this time they’re pipes, and some trial-and-error is to be expected to make sure you don’t end up on spikes. Of all the zones, this is the one that’ll keep you on your toes the most. The boss is Sonic’s evil robot twin, but unlike the absolutely vicious version that’s on the MD, this one shouldn’t pose too much of a problem. Be careful though, because he does love to zoom directly towards you. Once you kill him, you’ll only get the sixth Chaos Emerald if you’ve already got the first five.

If not, you move straight on to the credits, which features Sonic running and running and running past pretty fields as the sun goes down, stopping at the end to look up and see Tails’ face in the clouds, a vision that many have taken to be proof that our foxy friend has been murdered by Robotnik and that this is him up in Heaven. Nice theory, but it doesn’t match up with the good ending, where the credits feature both Sonic and Tails running past the fields and looking up to see both of their faces up in the clouds. They can’t both be dead if they’re both still on Earth, or wherever the hell Sonic is set, right? I always took the bad ending to mean that Tails is still out there, waiting to be rescued. Come on, he’s not dead. Blimey. As for the good ending, and the sight of both of them up in the clouds? Well, it’s just a nice image, isn’t it? At no point did I ever think Tails had been killed. Not until all these YouTube conspiracy theories.

Zone 7: Crystal Egg

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The genuine final zone of Sonic 2 has an adorable, cutesy look that’s actually quite disconcerting given that it’s the final world and the odds are that the final boss will be worse than anything we’ve ever encountered. We’re talking the calm before the storm here, people. Even the music is sweet and cuddly. All I can think is that something is very, very wrong here. The level reminds me a little of Cloud City from The Empire Strikes Back – all this peace and tranquillity but treachery is just around the corner, you know? The levels are pretty easy – the CDs from Gimmick Mt make a return, although they’re a lot smaller here. If the earlier versions were regular CDs, then these are like those little 3” CD singles that were available for a little while in the nineties. Actually, scratch that, they’re the equivalent of Nintendo Gamecube discs. After two very pleasant and pastel-coloured levels, the final boss indeed turns out to be an absolute beast. We’re now in a dark world mostly occupied by a single room bordered by a pipe that you’re best off staying inside while Robotnik does his thing (shooting out little electric gremlins, releasing little electric patterns that shoot out more electric patterns, creating electrical storms). Just stay inside the pipes until it’s all clear, shoot yourself out of the pipe and into the arena long enough to smash Robotnik once before you scarper back into the pipe. I think you have to do this twelve times before you defeat him. It’s definitely the tensest part of the game, and tough stuff. It’s a doddle compared to the monstrous Mega-Robotnik from the Mega Drive version though. Once this is done, Robotnik scarpers and vanishes inside some telepod, the bugger. However, in his place we get Tails! I’m happy, you’re happy, but Sonic just looks confused…

As far as I was aware, everybody loved Sonic 2 – the Mega Drive fans were sorted and the Master System fans were satisfied. It wasn’t until I started reading these retro reviews about how much of an unfair git the 8-bit version was that I began to realise there was a whole other school of thought out there that really didn’t like the game at all. Of course that was when I realised that most of the criticisms were being levelled at the Game Gear version. I hadn’t realised the MS and GG versions, for all their similarities, were very different in execution.

Unfortunately, the MS version never got a wider release outside of Europe – for example, in the US the console was pretty much dead, so the only way the Americans got to play Sonic 2 was on the GG. Obviously, the hand-held GG screen is smaller than the MS’s, but instead of literally shrinking the picture to get everything onscreen, the GG version cropped the image, which turned out to be a very unpopular move. It also made the camera jerk queasily in the wrong direction if you happened to feel like sliding the breaks on Sonic’s feet and backtracked. That’s right, it’s the old-school gaming equivalent of shaky-cam in action films. Oh, and you thought the occasional blind jump was unfair in the Master System version? You ain’t seen shit, mate. The GG is so much more brutal. You have to be so much more on the ball here, although having played it directly after completing the MS version did make things a lot easier for me as a lot of the level design was fresh in my memory.

The Underground Zone boss is probably the best comparison – on the MS it is almost hilariously easy. You barely have to move. Just stay where you are, and jump when that ball comes towards you. On the GG the hill is much steeper and the balls are coming at you at different speeds – it’s not impossible, but it’s so much more intense and tricky. However, I’ve seen comments online where people have admitted to not even being able to get past this first boss and have given up on the game entirely.

Later problems that arise from the cropped screen include the bubble sections in Aqua Lake Act 2, where you have an extremely small-to-nonexistent window of time to react to those spears and gremlins. This proves to be particularly bad the higher up you are – if you do get hit, you fall down to the bottom with no way to alter your trajectory, which means if you do end up in the path of a spear or a gremlin, you’re screwed, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The final act of Green Hills, which was already a challenge on the MS, becomes an absolute nightmare. Even if you do clear the bulk of it, there’s always the odds that after all that trial-and-error, the final boss will only end up killing you, a much more likely result given the GG’s cramped screen and lack of room to manoeuvre. The final boss in Crystal Egg really suffers too, given that any part of the room (which comfortably took up the space of the whole screen on the MS) is made to constantly be shunted off-screen as you move through the bordering pipe – what a joke! In addition to these problems was the lack of checkpoints throughout the levels which in any other Sonic game would have let you re-start a level from a certain part. In this game, death meant going all the way back to the start. You still couldn’t gather more than a couple of rings after being hit either. For Sonic 2 haters, this was salt in the wound.

However, when I was young, I never found Sonic 2 that difficult, and that’s because I had the MS. It was a challenge, for sure, but wasn’t it meant to be? I think it took me about four months to complete. That felt about right, and I wasn’t playing it non-stop or anything like that either. I was only eleven at the time, and as such I had gaming rations forced upon me by my mum. There were tricky bits for sure – the hang glider/clouds situation in Sky High Act 2, all of Green Hills Act 3, the boss in Gimmick Mountain Zone 3, the treachery of the platform/spike/pipe combo in Scrambled Egg Act 2 and of course, the Crystal Egg final boss.

However, the absolute pinnacle of mind-bending frustration was in trying to find the Chaos Emerald hidden somewhere in Gimmick Mt.– my God, that took me forever! The happiness I felt on finding that red bastard after so many attempts can’t be encapsulated in mere words. I just can’t do it.

Seriously, this game dominated my life for those first few months back in 1993. Good thing too, because video games back then were almost as expensive as they are now – Sonic 2 cost a whopping £29.99! This meant that games weren’t frivolously purchased. The whole used-game market was yet to really take off, so (and this is something I realised when writing about the Game Boy a few years back) even though us fans loved our games and our consoles, there were usually large portions of the catalogue that were never played, because we just didn’t have the titles.

Therefore Sonic 2 wasn’t just any old game to me – for a while it was THE game. Getting it on a Christmas Day added to the appeal. No school to worry about, just me and my game. This was also the year I got Batman Returns on VHS (I was under ‘15’ at the time, but ssshh) so I was as happy as a fox with two tails. I was eleven at the time, and my interest in video games was really beginning to fire up. I hadn’t played that many titles back then, so I think I’d be right in saying that Sonic 2 was the second game I truly devoured (I think I delved into the original afterwards) after Alex Kidd in Miracle World, which came built-in into my Master System II. Sonic 2 didn’t have a save-option, so it was something you had to master. You could end up getting so far, lose your lives and have to do it all over again. This meant that you ended up becoming very familiar with those early levels. Not a problem for me – I loved the levels, loved their look, loved their sound, loved their feel – I was definitely getting my mum’s money’s worth. The later levels, especially Crystal Egg, became less familiar by comparison and as a result was the most pleasurable to revisit recently. Of course, it’s an incredibly modest game – it was back then and it really is now, but for all its flaws it’s still a joy to play and the peak of all things Sonic-related on the MS. A second sequel, Sonic Chaos, would be released but I missed out on it the time. Playing it decades later, I was glad I had.

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Review: Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles IV: Turtles in Time (SNES)

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One of the most acclaimed beat-em-ups for the SNES, Turtles in Time is an arcade port that was the fourth Turtles game to be released on a Nintendo console – the first three were on the NES (the second was also a port of the first Turtles arcade game – still with me?) but the third wasn’t released outside of Japan. One of the problems with the second game in particular was the inevitable comparison to the arcade version – definitely playable on its own terms, it nevertheless lacked the oomph of the coin-op. By the time Turtles in Time arrived on the SNES, Nintendo and Konami’s 16-bit capabilities could more convincingly emulate the original source, and even throw in a few tricks of its own. I’ve never played the arcade version of Turtles in Time (or TIT as I won’t be referring to it from now on), but just from how the SNES version played, I realised that this was the arcade-experience-at-home I wanted but never hoped to get with Turtles II. It plays very nicely – the looks, sounds and feel do a sterling job of bringing a coin-op feel at home.

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The minimal plot is bonkers. Evil brain Krang, within a particularly enormous version of his exo-suit (though if you remember, he has always been capable of super-size if you recall as far back as Episode 5 of the original cartoon), steals the Statue of Liberty in the middle of a report from a conspicuously cleavage-y April O’ Neil, who usually remained zipped up on TV. You and your designated turtle (and you can bring a friend, but just the one – there’s no four-player action here) must make it through three levels (a building site, the streets, the sewers) before arriving at the Technodrome to take on top-bastard Shredder. This latter level is unique to the SNES version, and it plays out just like a final level, but upon beating ol’ Tin Can, the game takes a twist and hurls you way, way, way, way back into the past – prehistoric times, in fact. You must clear the next few levels which leap further and further towards the present, but not before a quick detour into the far future. So that’s nine levels in total, plus a final boss level. Two of them are bonus stages that make fun use out of the SNES’ Mode-7 capabilities – the first one, set in a sewer, reminded me of Battletoads in Battlemaniacs, and the second, set in the future, is a dead ringer for F-Zero. However, unlike usual bonus stages, these count as proper levels because they actually have a boss at the end, so don’t get cocky when all those stats show up telling how well you did, because it ain’t over…

There are three difficulty settings – the harder the setting, the more obstacles are present, not to mention different, nastier foot soldiers that are thankfully absent on the easy version. To compensate, more continues are added to the tougher versions. And this is where I admit I use a little cheat that probably everybody else uses, but I felt smart for thinking of it myself. Essentially, play as you normally would as one player. You’ll notice upon playing that the option for a second player to join in at any point during the game is up there on the top right hand of the screen. So what you do is, when you’re down to your last life, pick up that second control pad, join the game and continue as normal, doing your best to ignore the fact that you’ve essentially left that turtle who got you this far to helplessly die. This way you have a whole extra bunch of lives and continues to help you out. Am I a fucking genius or what?

Enemies are predominantly Foot Soldiers – the purple ones are the most regular, and since they don’t have any weapons, they’re the easiest to take care of, although they can grab you so that other soldiers can thrown in some punches, so don’t get complacent. Other, more dangerous Foots (or Gits as I call them) of varying colours have a variety of weapons to get you with, from shurikens, axes, bow ‘n’ arrow and whatnot. Of course, you have a weapon of your own to defend yourself with, so, er… don’t forget to fight back. You won’t get very far if you don’t. This game ain’t for pacifists. You also have a unique boss for each level – some I recognised, such as BaxterFly, the two mutants from the second film, the Rat King, Rocksteady and BeBop and of course, Krang and Shredder. I vaguely remember Leatherhead from some episode or other, but Slash (not the Guns N’ Roses guitarist sadly) was new to me, a kind of Evil Turtle with a big bastard sword. I like to think of him as the ugly runt of the litter that Splinter got rid of when the others were born. The thing is, how did he get rid of him? Usually you’d flush an animal you don’t want down the toilet, but these guys already lived in the sewers, so I reckon he probably mailed him off somewhere out of the way.

Anyway, these bosses have their own set routines – learn them and you’ll know when and when not to attack. The final two bosses are pimped-up versions of Krang and Shredder and in the big scheme of things, even these two aren’t that tough once you know what their game is. In fact, the most difficult element of Turtles in Time is sheer volume – you can’t cruise through this game, you’ve got to keep fighting and fighting.

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It might appear disconcerting for a game based on a kids cartoon to have so much relentless savagery – these Turtles games are essentially cuter versions of legendary beat-the-shit-out-of-em-up Streets of Rage, albeit without resorting to broken bottles as weapons, and with absolutely no kicking the living hell out of women. Still, there’s no need to call Mary Whitehouse’s estate as, if you’ll recall, the Foot Soldiers are robots, so they feel no pain. Unless they were programmed to feel pain. In which case, try to ignore their screams in your head. Of course, not all of these antagonists are robots – characters like Rocksteady and BeBop are most definitely flesh and blood, and here you are hacking them with a sword. Bit odd that – in the cartoon the most those two ever got was a bump on the noggin or they got trapped in a bubble or something. The Turtles in this game are brutal killers. Not all of the Foot get killed however – some of them break the fourth wall when you knock them out senseless just long enough to hurl them DIRECTLY AT THE SCREEN! Seriously, this never, ever gets old. This move was never in the arcade version apparently, so 1-UP to the SNES version. However, the move can be tricky to pull off if you’re trying to do it on purpose on a regular basis, like in Level 4 when the only way to defeat Shredder is to consistently throw Foot Soldiers (or Feet as I won’t be referring to them from now on) at the screen. It’s doable enough on Easy and Medium, but proves to be an absolute git on Hard, where the incarnation of Foot Soldier you have to defeat are the really annoying versions that know how to block your attack.

Back to violence though, and interestingly Michaelangelo’s nunchakus, which was such a sore spot for the BBFC back in the day, (and were snipped out of UK broadcasts of the cartoon) remain in the game. The UK version retains the sanitised ‘Hero’ in the title, more I suppose for continuity’s sake than anything (though that didn’t stop the film from keeping its original title), but apart from that there seems to be no watering down of the content. Mikey happily swirls his chucks and beats the living snot out of a thousand bad guys with the things. I guess any kind of censorship towards video games had yet to be regulated at that time.

Of course, Beat-em-ups are mostly very repetitive things, and Turtles in Time is no exception– very little brainpower is required, just a lot of brawn. Attack, attack, attack, and that’s it. Of course, it’s not completely mindless – you have to keep alert and make sure the torrent of Foot Soldiers don’t get the better of you, but to be honest, the game threatens to get samey. That it doesn’t get boring is a testament to the game’s liveliness. Fans of the cartoon will love it, right from the recreation of the opening moments of the title sequence, and even using the same theme for when April does her news reports. As someone who wasted many a penny on the first arcade game, this is as close to reliving that kind of tremendous experience at home. The levels are relatively short and sweet, the bosses are fun (apart from the Hard version of Shredder), the music is fun (if unmemorable), and there are lots of cute touches, like Rocksteady and Bebop being so stupid as usual that they get their weapons tangled, leaving them open to attack. Why did Shredder keep hiring these two clowns?

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Beating the game on Easy and Normal results in a let-down ending, with Splinter commending you for reaching the end, but essentially telling you to try harder. Thanks, geez. Shredder cackles before the Game Over screen mocks you for your half-hearted efforts, but I never understood why he’s laughing, given that he was just chucked off a building. Mad bastard. I wouldn’t be laughing. The proper ending upon finishing Hard is quite mad, as the Turtles fly the Statue of Liberty back to its rightful place using the Turtle Blimp (remember that?) and there’s a bit that really makes me laugh when April and Splinter turn to the camera – the latter’s open-mouthed, goofy smile is all the funnier because of his blatant, don’t-give-a-shit attitude towards being out in public. Remember, the New York people don’t know about this man-sized rat in a kimono living underground, and here he is, hanging out with that famous reporter from Channel 6 News! Back underground, Splinter commends the Turtles (and me, of course) on a job well done and that we’re heroes. Don’t turn off the machine before the end credits finish though, because we get a ‘cast’ list sequence that really tickles me when it gets to the bad guys, because every credit for an antagonist is a shot of it absolutely battering a Turtle, freeze-framing on its pained, battered, dazed or brutally beaten defeat throes. Well, it made me laugh. Other amusements in these credits include the misspelling of ‘Stone Warrior’ as ‘Stone Worrier’ – then again, maybe that was the actual name of those monstrous rock monsters, but I didn’t sense any fretting from any of them. They were too busy trying to stomp me into the ground. Also, the final parting message from the game was ‘Thank you for your playing’, which doesn’t sound right.

Three-and-a-half-shells out of five half-shells. No, I don’t understand either.

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PS: My Turtles of choice are Michaelangelo for sheer battering power with those nunchakus, and Donatello for his big stick. Good bit of wood, that.

 

The Nintendo Game Boy – 25 Years Later….

So the Nintendo Game Boy is 25 years old. I’m in the UK, so we didn’t actually get it here until 1990, but I didn’t get my own one until the summer of 1993 – around the time of my birthday, in fact – my family got it for me in the Southend-on-Sea branch of Argos, bundled with – surprise, surprise – Tetris! I think Tetris came free with absolutely every Game Boy back in its first phase, so it was weird to see it also available as a stand-alone game that you could buy in the shops. Didn’t everyone have this game? I suppose if you bought a Game Boy second-hand then you might not have had a copy, and to be fair, you had to have a copy. It is so heartening to know that the Game Boy’s flagship game was such an intelligent one. Seriously. I took the time to play one of those retro-compilation games for the Xbox that put together a barrel load of old Mega Drive games and I was staggered by how brain-dead so many of those games were – just punch, punch, punch, jump, jump, jump, kick, kick, kick and so on. With Tetris you had to be on the ball, all the time. It was a great game, except for the fact that it didn’t appear to have an ending. It just got faster and faster until it was physically impossible – for your eyes and your fingers – to keep up. I like games to have an ending, even if nearly all endings to games back then were shit. I just like closure. Almost as bad was when games ‘rewarded’ you by sending you back to the very start of the game so that you had to play it all over again, albeit this time with slightly more difficult opponents. Grr.

The Game Boy’s portability was the obvious and vital key to its success. Coming after the 8-bit wave of consoles – Nintendo’s NES and Sega’s Master System – the Game Boy games were far from cutting edge in regards to graphics and sound. They weren’t even in colour for God’s sake. The games weren’t that much cheaper than the 8-bit ones either. Somehow £29.99 for a Game Boy cartridge felt like a rip-off. No wonder I got so many of mine cheap and second-hand. Also – wanted to go 2-player with your mate? Well, you had to have one of those connectivity cables and your mate had to have his or her own copy of the game!!! Yet so many of us took the console to our hearts because, because… you could play the thing outside. Yeah, everything’s portable nowadays, but back then it was only Walkmans and Game Boys. The freedom of playing a computer game outside that wasn’t one of those crappy Game & Watch thingies was a joy unparalleled. Speaking of Tetris – it seemed perfect for the Game Boy. Have you ever tried playing it on a home console? It never felt right. Too big a screen for something as small and intimately confined as Tetris. True, the 2-player option was a far easier proposition, but knowing you could see what your mate was up to on the other side of the screen made their sneaky moves feel a lot less sneaky. It felt more of an attack when you couldn’t see what they were up to on their own Game Boy.

Design wise it was a classic of simplicity – a lean, no-nonsense grey, two (just two!!!) control buttons, the necessary ‘start’ and ‘select’ buttons and yes, yes, yes – a headphone port! I never understood it at the time but I could see how the tinny soundtracks to all those game could drive anyone not playing them at that moment completely nuts. Now you could shut out all those other humans and lose yourself entirely! I also think the Game Boy was the first ever console to have absolutely every single game begin with the same identifiable logo and sound. Not every Master System game began with the Sega logo, and I don’t think any NES game began with any standard logo. The Game Boy games would always start with the ‘Nintendo’ text scrolling down to the centre of the screen, culminating in that two-note ding that can bring a tear to any nostalgic-waxing gamer these days.

Power-wise, the Game Boy took four AA batteries and they lasted a healthy amount of time to be honest – there was also an AC adaptor for home use which meant you didn’t have to waste those batteries unnecessarily. Compare this to Sega’s attempt to conquer the portable market – the Game Gear- which definitely had the edge in some regards such as its colour screen, but its battery life was minimal and expensive to maintain. I never owned a Game Gear, and I always wanted one – the TV tuner sounded fantastic (never knew how well it worked in reality though) – but no one I knew had one, so how could you ever swap or sell or buy games to your mates? Also, the one game I did play on it was Sonic the Hedgehog 2, which merely took the Master System version and strangely cropped the screen so you couldn’t see what was coming until you were already dead. Now some fans liked the fact that this made the game more difficult, but it pissed me off to no end. Besides, why would I want to play a smaller, inferior version of a game that was already out for the Master System? That’s what gave the Game Boy an edge, that its Mario games were not mere copies of the NES versions.

While the NES had the first three Super Mario Bros games and the SNES had the formidable Super Mario World, the Game Boy was all too aware of its limitations and wisely didn’t try to Xerox those games to fit on a small monochrome screen. Instead it blessed itself with its own unique game – Super Mario Land – that was intentionally designed to fit inside its smaller scale and didn’t feel cropped or compromised as a result. True, there was some pixel blur when you made Mario run instead of walk, but overall this felt like the perfect alternative sequel to the original Mario game – not as anomalous as Mario Madness (Mario 2 in the US and Europe) but not as insanely difficult as The Lost Levels (Mario 2 in Japan). Here you had the tried-and-tested fun of the overground/underground levels (not to mention the plethora of secret rooms) but you could also fly an aircraft, which officially made it cooler than the original. Also, the final credit music used to get me close to tears. I don’t know why, I always found it so beautiful and strangely sad. That I only ever got to hear this music by completing the game made it all the sweeter. The fact that I can hear this music on youtube at the click of a button has robbed it of its magic for me.

That was probably my all-time favourite Game Boy game, but there were plenty of others that I recall – here’s a rundown of some of the games I remember playing.

Bart Simpson’s Escape from Camp Deadly – Simpsons in shock ‘not shite’ video game cash-in. The show itself was remarkably a remote presence in my life for a good while so I jumped on anything with their name on. As spin-offs go, not as good as the ‘Deep, Deep Trouble’ single by Bart and Homer, but what was?

The Castlevania Adventure – atmospheric platformer with vampires. Perfect. Was a real favourite until my copy mysteriously vanished. Cue many tears.

Dynablaster – Insanely addictive maze/blow up the bad guys strategy craziness commonly known as Bomberman that admittedly wasn’t as much fun as the multiplayer versions available on home consoles where you could trap your mates between a dead end and a bomb and watch them squirm ‘til the fuse runs out.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch – I think this must have been very cheap when I bought it as even as a stupid kid I knew all too well the general crappiness of movie tie-in games. Amazingly, I remember this being quite entertaining.

 Hyper Lode Runner – definitely a second hand purchase (I don’t even recall getting it with the box or instructions) and a platform with a little bit of strategy thrown in.

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening – aka Zelda IV. Massively popular, highly acclaimed, vastly epic, and yet it didn’t do it for me. I guess I had already been spoiled by the astonishing A Link to the Past on the SNES.

Revenge of the Gator – it was a pinball game, and an alligator was involved somehow. I played this one a lot.

Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan – simple platformer but so much fun I must have re-played it and re-completed it at least 678 times. The music in the sewer levels still reverberates inside my skull to this day.

Tennis – it was tennis. Simple, straight-up tennis. Yet it worked for me. I got so into this that I was genuinely disappointed to find out how difficult the sport was when I tried it in real life.

Come to think of it, there were absolutely loads of Game Boy games I never played, and never will. The games were expensive back then, and from what I recall from relevant magazines from the time like Total!, there was a fair amount of crap as well, but the ones I did play, I really, really played. Less was more, and I definitely got my money’s worth back then. A lot of those games have probably dated appallingly, so I’m tempted not to revisit them– let the past be the past. Besides, for me – it’s the memory of the whole gaming experience itself, not just the game, that I love. A warm summer evening, sitting cross-legged on the patch of ground overlooking the car park near the back of my house, playing Super Mario Land as the sun started to set… beautiful.