12/06/2018

MICKEY'S JIGSAW PUZZLES (AMIGA)

Look, I’m getting to be an old man these days so after getting my arse kicked repeatedly in VR Troopers and playing Dark Souls 2 again in my free time, I’ve decided I need a bit of a break. It’s time for something simple, something gentle, something that doesn’t throw my declining reaction times and mental acuity into sharp, grim relief. So, a kid’s game, then. Considering the last time I played an edutainment game starring Mickey Mouse it turned out to be surprisingly not-terrible, I’ve decided to return once again to the House of Mouse with Novotrade’s 1991 Amiga (also available on PC) rainy-afternoon-em-up Mickey’s Jigsaw Puzzles!


With a cheery blast of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” issuing from the speakers, Mickey himself appears to greet us. Jigsaw puzzles! With Mickey Mouse! What more do you need to know? I hope the background is not representative of the actual puzzles contained within the game. I was hoping for an easy ride, after all.
With no other preamble, it’s straight into the puzzle-building action. I suppose I’d better show you the first puzzle then, huh? Yeah, I should, but I’m building anticipation. Get a good, clear picture in your mind of Mickey Mouse’s face. You may need to refer to it later.


So you start the game and you’re immediately presented with this. My decision to play Mickey’s Jigsaw Puzzles has paid off in spades, because Mickey’s facial expression gave me the kind of genuine, chest-rattling, wipe-away-a-tear belly laugh that no piece of intentional comedy has in months. It’s just too, too perfect, and represents the closest I’ve ever come to replacing long-time VGJunk mascot Satan Goat in the site’s header. There’s much fun to be had trying to figure out exactly what could cause such an expression, but my two main candidates are that Mickey gambled on a fart and lost, or Donald Duck’s wearing that faux-innocent look because he’s just whacked Mickey square in his mouse-hole with a pipe wrench. Oh yeah, Donald and Goofy are here too, and they haven’t fared much better, art wise. Goofy’s hat now looks makes him look like he should be dealing ecstasy at Glastonbury circa 1998, and given Donald’s bulging eyes I suspect he’s been buying whatever Goofy’s selling. As for the ghost on the right, well, that thing’s just neat. I don’t know if this is the intent, but I can only see it as being swaddled like a baby. A spooky, floating baby.


Okay, fine, the actual jigsawing. You select which picture you want to puzzle out, then you can choose how many pieces the resulting jigsaw will have, from sixty-four all the way down to a mere four. It’s nice to have the option to make things easier for very young children, but as a grown man who has just about managed to stop laughing at Mickey Mouse’s face I’m sure I can handle a sixty-four piece jigsaw.


Nope, I placed Mickey’s eyes down on the puzzle and now I’m laughing again. This might take longer than I had anticipated.
As you can see, it works much as you’d expect it to. Place the piece in the appropriate segment, and if you click in the wrong place the screen will flash so you know to try again. The cursor feels a bit jerky, but other than that I suppose I can’t fault the mechanics.


Because the jigsaw takes up the whole screen, you do have to go to a separate screen to select your piece. That slows things down a little, but I suppose it’s the best compromise available. Could you imagine how much we’d be missing out on if Mickey’s face had been made smaller to accommodate the jigsaw pieces? It doesn’t bear thinking about.


The most interesting feature of MJP is that once you’ve completed a puzzle, you can press the camera button on the right to play a short animation of the displayed scene. For instance, here Mickey opens the chest and bat flies out, the ghost wobbles ominously and the Disney friends talk about how spooky it all is. And I do mean talk, because there are voice samples for the dialogue and it sounds pretty decent for the most part, although Donald’s rasping quacks were always going to be a challenge for a low bitrate sample and as a result he sounds even more like he’s gargling with broken glass than usual.
It’s a shame that this was the very first puzzle that the game shows you, because nothing else in this game is going to live up to it and we’ve already seen most of the gameplay – but I’ve played through it all now, so for the rest of the article we might as well look at all the other puzzles.


Mickey chills out on Mars while a robot servant brings him drinks – drinks that he’s too lazy to even lift his arms to hold, the robot just pops the straw right in his mouth. If I were a political cartoonist I’m sure I could turn this into a panel highlighting the Disney Corporation’s eventual desire to spread their tendrils beyond the Earth itself, but alas I lack the laser-sharp wit and clear thinking of most political cartoonists.


I know his name’s in the title and everything, but a lot of the puzzles seem to go out of their way to remind you that Mickey Mouse is the coolest dude ever and you cannot hope to ever approach even one percent of his incandescent magnitude. Mickey is the alpha and the omega, the standard against which all others are judged and found wanting. That’s why he gets to be the guitarist in the “MM Band” - and you can guess what “MM” stands for. His coolness is rather undercut by the fact he fashioned his guitar from the anchor of Barbie’s Dream Yacht, but he pulls it back with a rather snazzy shirt.
As expected, viewing the animation for this puzzle plays a brief snippet of the band. Mickey and Goofy want to rock, but Donald uses his curiously massive hands to throttle his saxophone into playing a completely unrelated jazz riff. Ever the rebel, is Donald.


Mickey’s also a sports star, naturally – here we seem him on the gridiron, showing some rare fallibility as he fumbles a pass before eventually recovering the ball and presumably scoring both a touchdown and all the mousey cheerleaders. The thing is, these scenes aren’t fully animated, so Mickey’s body stays in place while his limbs awkwardly rotate. Disney is a company that specialises in imagination, which is handy because you’ll need a lot of imagination to believe that Mickey’s actually playing American football.


Mickey’s also good at football, although scoring goals is much easier when there are no other players on the pitch. Unfortunately, no football team in the world (that I know of) wears a kit of pink shirt with a blue band, pink socks and yellow-and-green shorts – I imagine there’s some kind of rule against it to protect the opposition’s eyes – so I can’t pin Mickey down to a particular club.


Oh, and here’s where I realised there’s a different style of puzzle available to you, one where you get items rather than traditional jigsaw pieces and have to place them in the correct blanked-out areas. Obviously this does little to enliven the gameplay, but if you ever wanted to create an image where Mickey Mouse is kicking his own severed head around in from of a crowd of horrified onlookers, now’s your chance.


Mickey Mouse: Radical Skate Dude now, with a deck that’s so intensely of its time that people who are into the whole retro-80s-synthwave aesthetic could only dream of recreating a fraction of its power. Mickey’s also sporting a palm-tree-patterned shirt that I’m sure set him back about two hundred bucks at a fancy boutique.


Yet more sports with a bit of baseball, although once again the focus is on Mickey’s rampant narcissism. Notice how he wrote “I love Minnie” on the fence back there but then wrote his own name at three times the size? And a scrawled self-portrait, too. A show-off and a vandal, that’s Mickey, although thinking back to the places I used to hang out playing football when I was a kid there are a lot worse things he could have graffitied up there. It might still have involved Minnie, but not the word “love.”
Speaking of Minnie Mouse, she’s been notable by her absence so far, but all that will change now that I’m ready to insert disc two and access the second lot of puzzles. I have no shame in admitting that by this point I had resorted to setting all the puzzles to four pieces each, allowing me to complete each jigsaw in an average of eleven seconds. Hey, it means less time waiting around to see fantastic images such as…


...Minnie doing some exercises in a way that cannot be good for her spine. Mind you, she is a rodent and therefore much more skeletally flexible than any human. “Oh, I just love Gymnastics!” says Minnie in a voice so high-pitched that all my neighbours dogs started barking. Given that all she did was flap her hands around a bit, Minnie’s routine is as much gymnastics as me walking over to the kettle and ducking down to get the teabags out of the cupboard is a biathlon.


Minnie plays tennis. Not much else to this one, folks, beside that stray observation that given his proven track record of narcissism, Mickey clearly only loves Minnie because she looks exactly like him.


Back to the exercising – or “mousercising,” as Minnie calls it. The real star in this image is the radio on the shelf. At first you’re like, “how cute, a Mickey-shaped radio” but then you look more closely at those eyes – pink-rimmed, fleshy and wet with tears – and you start to wonder if that radio is entirely mechanical. It also looks more like a koala than a mouse.


Now we’re in Minnie’s boudoir, in a scene that immediately brought back surprisingly strong memories of the Dream Phone board game. By now Mickey’s constant presence should come as no surprise, but if you’re like me you’ll spend a good few minutes trying to figure out the perspective here that allows Minnie to look at the picture of Mickey even though it’s hanging on the wall behind her.


Don’t you bloody well threaten me, Mickey. I don’t care if you are dressed as a skinhead, I won’t be intimidated by a mouse even if said mouse does look like the kid from This is England.
Oh, and I see Goofy’s got his usual hat back. The big hat is just for spooky castles, I guess.


Yep, those are horses. I think. Okay, so I’m not so sure about the one on the right because it’s only got three legs and glowing demonic eyes. Protoplasmic elder beasts that have temporarily assumed a vaguely equine shape, at the very least. As they ride through the desert on a horse with no soul, look at Mickey and remember that in cowboy movies “black hat” is a term for a bad guy because they, well, wear black hats. I rest my case.


I hadn’t really noticed before, but while I’d say the graphics in MJP are mostly okay (although the Amiga could do a lot better) everything does look very rubbery, as though all the characters are encased in PVC. I mean, look at Minnie’s skirt, that’s definitely not fabric.


And finally, just as we’re getting into “Krusty Visits Relatives in Annapolis, Maryland” territory, we reach the final scene. Mickey goes for a swim. For some unknown reason I was expecting something a bit more… climactic. A group shot of all the characters, Mickey ascending to his eternal throne as the Earth’s new ruler, something like that. Instead we get tiny sharks and a weird-looking starfish. The starfish flops around listlessly, and so I feel a certain kinship with it as Mickey’s Jigsaw Puzzles limps over the finishing line.


Well, those were definitely some jigsaw puzzles. No doubt about that, and as such it’s difficult to judge the game as a whole. I suppose it partly comes down to price: if this was sold as a full-price retail game back in the day, a parent would probably feel a bit ripped off even if it did come with a real 24-piece jigsaw (or at least the PC version did). I reckon kids would enjoy it, though. It’s simple enough to be perfectly suitable for very young children, the selectable piece counts and alternate “shadow” mode give it a bit of extra longevity and the sounds and animation are pretty fun. Put it this way: if this game had featured He-Man or The Real Ghostbusters rather than Mickey Mouse, the six-year-old VGJunk would have been all over it. So, I suppose that’s a tentative thumbs up on MJP, although frankly the game could have caused my monitor to squirt skunk spray into my eyes at regular intervals and that Mickey face in the first puzzle would have made it all worthwhile.

09/06/2018

VR TROOPERS (MEGADRIVE / GENESIS)

In the spirit of furthering harmony and togetherness between all the nations of the world, I present a game that combines Japanese sci-fi action, American attempts to cash in on previous televisual successes and obscure British software creators: it’s Syrox Developments’ 1995 Megadrive / Genesis rubber-suits-em-up VR Troopers!


Oh hey, VR Troopers! I remember that show. Well, kinda. A little. Okay, so all I really remember about VR Troopers is that it was a “sister series” to Power Rangers and was made using the same methods: footage of costumed heroes and rubbery monsters from Japanese tokusatsu shows spliced with wholesome American teens (who may or may not have “attitude”) to create a show about heroes fighting villains, light comedy and marketing potential. Honestly, the thing I remember most vividly about VR Troopers is that their slogan was “We Are VR,” which ranks with “Hi, we’re also here” or “Hang on, just let me find my inhaler” as far as ferocious battle cries go. In short, VR Troopers is kids in super suits fighting evil and it’s not a patch on Big Bad Beetleborgs, which had both pretty neat toys and the ghostly twin of Jay Leno.


The game begins with what should be a cause for celebration: a new arcade cabinet has been delivered to the VR Troopers’ karate dojo. JB, Ryan and Kaitlin are puzzled, because it’s quite obviously an evil arcade cabinet. It’s shaped like Satan’s can opener!


Surprise surprise, the evil arcade cabinet is evil and sucks the VR Troopers into a digital nightmare from which they can only escape by using their Trooper powers to fight a series of villainous creatures under the command of the evil Grimlord. Grimlord. Even for Saban tokusatsu show Grimlord seems especially unsubtle. Picked his name out of a Warhammer 40,000 novel, I reckon. Oh well, I’m sure VR Troopers can’t be worse than the last game I covered about being sucked into an evil arcade cabinet, because that game was the execrable Wayne’s World.


Here’s Grimlord now, looking a lot like a Dr. Who villain. Davros in a tinfoil hat, that kinda thing. He’s sending out the fearsome warrior Tankotron to deal with the Troopers. Tankotron has a hard shell. That’s all I know about Tankotron. I keep wanting to sing Tankotron’s name along with the Megadeth song “Psychotron,” but then I spend a lot of time wanting to shoehorn random words into Megadeth songs.


Now, select your fighter! You can choose from JB Reese, Kaitlin Star and Ryan Steel – you know, the VR Troopers – and they’ve each got their own special moves, but they’re all quite similar to each other so do what I did and pick JB because he was the first one highlighted.


VR Troopers is a fighting game, then. A one-on-one fighting game, for the most part. Your chosen Trooper takes on one of Grimlord’s minions in hand-to-hand combat, with most of the trapping of the fighting game genre being present and correct. Best of three rounds, a timer, special moves, the works. The controls are simple enough, and because VR Troopers was designed specifically for the Megadrive it avoid the “not enough buttons” pitfall that plagues Megadrive fighting games like the Street Fighter II or Mortal Kombat ports.


Special moves are executed with d-pad inputs and button presses, and they’re much closer in style to Mortal Kombat that Street Fighter: no quarter-circles or dragon-punch motions in this one, it’s more about tapping directions. For example, JB’s Laser Lance projectile is executed simply by pressing forward and punch, and the drill-kick pictured above is just down and kick in mid-air. This makes it sound like VR Troopers is going to be an easy game to get a handle on, and conceptually that is true.


However, as soon as you start fighting Tankotron you’ll realise that VR Troopers may have aimed for cozy simplicity but overshot and landed in the uncomfortable woollen sweater of frustration. Attack inputs are simple, but they require precise timing to activate and I spent a lot of time in VR Troopers trying to press forward and punch to throw a projectile only to move forward one pixel and punch the empty air. On top of that, half of your special moves are useless. JB’s Laser Lance, pictured above, is the most egregious offender, and I never once managed to hit my opponent with it. The problem, and it’s a problem shared by all the game’s projectiles, is that it’s so incredibly slow. It takes a good couple of seconds for the start-up animation to play out, by which time the enemy has jumped over your projectile one hundred percent of the time, usually kicking you in the face in the process.


Besides that, the first battle against Tankotron is a fairly standard fighting game affair. Jumping attacks work well, there’s a dedicated button for throws that can come in handy when Tankotron gets close and because JB’s drill kick is the one special move I could land with any kind of consistency I ended up using it a lot. For his part, Tankotron tried to shower me with projectiles both from the cannon he has instead of a hand and the landmines he can throw out in front of him – an attack that doesn’t have a hitbox so much as a hit shipping container.


Yep, jumping kicks are the way to go. Jumping kicks never let you down, and with enough of them applied to Tankotron’s hard shell the villain crumples in defeat, landing a pose that implies JB has shattered the poor creature’s spine. That’s not my problem, friends, and it’s onwards to the next battle!


First I’ve got to talk to this dog. I wasn’t expecting this. I know it’s easy to over-exaggerate how creepy these kind of things are but this dog is genuinely making me feel a bit uncomfortable. It’s the eyes – the tiny pinprick pupils, the fact that they’re the same colour as the rest of the dog, they way they seem to be carved into the dog’s flesh rather than being a separate, functioning organ. There’s a darkness behind those eyes, cruel and timeless. This might be the first ever dog that isn’t a good boy.
I was fascinated by this dog, so I looked him up and first things first, his name is Jeb. What kind of psychopath calls their dog Jeb? I think Jeb is actually the name of the turn-of-the-century cowboy who was murdered only for his unquiet spirit to take canine form. Also, all the descriptions of Jeb I saw say he electrocuted and gained the ability to speak… but with no mention that his intelligence increases, so we have to assume that all dogs in the VR Troopers universe have human-level intellects but simply cannot express themselves.


The next battle is a strange one, because it lasts for ten seconds and involves capering masked monsters attacking our hero two-at-a-time. Because it only lasts ten seconds I barely had time to figure out what the hell was going on, but I eventually realised it’s a survival challenge. The enemies respawn if you defeat them, and you have to survive the “onslaught” - perhaps not the right word for being attacked by two lycra-clad acrobats – until the timer runs out. It’s a dull, pointless interlude made even more banal once you figure out that crouching in a corner and kicking works one hundred percent of the time, so it’s a shame that this “Battle Grid Mode” appears between every full battle. Each time it appears you have to survive for an extra ten seconds, but the only potential pitfall here is that you might fall asleep and forget to press the kick button.


Here’s Dr. Horatio Hart, friend to the team and, as far as I can tell, VR Troopers’ equivalent to Power Rangers’ Zordon. Dr. Hart is trapped in a macabre digital quasi-life, not quite dead enough to give up on turtlenecks but with enough life force to warn you about which of Grimlord’s minions you’ll be fighting next. This time it’s Decimator, and while the pedant in me wants to make a joke about how he’ll only take ten percent of my health bar, the (admittedly small) part of me that isn’t a massive dork is saying “shut up, you massive dork.”


Decimator lives up to his menacing name by absolutely slaughtering me in single combat. He’s fast, he’s powerful, and what’s more he’s not afraid to repeatedly spam the move where teleports behind you can stabs you in the back. Poor old Kaitlin doesn’t stand a chance, not when it takes her three hours to unholster her pistol and another two to fire it.


Yes, VR Troopers is a difficult game. Very difficult, at least for me, and I’m only playing it on the default difficulty level although even knocking it down to “Kids” level didn’t make it that much easier. It’s a lot of little things that add up to make VR Troopers a pain in the arse, although the aforementioned sluggishness of your special moves is a major contributing factor. Take Street Fighter II, for example. Your opponent jumps towards you? Knock them out of the air with a Dragon Punch. Simple. However, that doesn’t work in VR Troopers because your special moves are too slow. You’re limited to your default punches and kicks for ninety-nine percent of the combat, although of course the monsters have no such limitations and will happily repeat the same highly damaging moves over and over again. Add to this the game’s occasionally wonky hitboxes and you’ve got a recipe for a stodgy, defensive fighter rather than something packed with free-flowing action.


Next up is Darkheart. I like Darkheart. He looks pretty cool, kind of part Kamen Rider-esque superhero, part bucket-headed Scooby Doo villain. It is a shame, then, that you don’t get to see Darkheart that much because his special power is to turn invisible. Ah yes, a fighting game where you can’t see your opponent – it’s as though the developers heard me complaining about Decimator and thought “oh, you thought that was unpleasant, you just stick around and see what else we’ve got for you.”


So here’s Ryan, getting blasted across the screen by a fireball thrown by The Invisible Prick. According to the VR Troopers wiki (of course there’s a wiki) Darkheart is secretly Ryan’s father Tyler Steele, brainwashed by Grimlord for the purposes of both evil and dramatic irony. Ryan should be grateful, there are a lot of teens out there who’d like to drop-kick their unseen father in the face but it’s Ryan who gets to live the dream.


Next up is KongBot, and I’m sure I can get a hearty “hell yeah” from everyone reading this because who doesn’t love a robot gorilla? Only the joyless and the damned, that’s who. As KongBot strides across the junkyard, swinging his massive steels fists, I’m left to reflect that whatever other flaws it has VR Troopers looks fantastic. Excellent sprites with lots of character, plenty of fancy visual effects and deep, detailed backgrounds make for a game that’s a genuine pleasure to look at.
Even the gameplay’s a bit more fun now, because KongBot is a noticeably easier opponent than the rest. This makes sense, because apparently KongBot was the first villain the Troopers ever fought in the show, so I wonder if he was originally intended to be the first opponent and the developers switched the order around later. KongBot’s a bit slower than the rest and his favourite charging ram attack is easier to avoid as a result, making for a fight that feels a damn sight fairer than Decimator’s teleporting bullshit or Darkheart’s invisibility.


Jeb might look creepy, but he’s definitely got his priorities straight.


Now we face The Magician, and you might be thinking he looks a lot more like a ninja than a magician. That’s because he is a ninja, especially in the original Japanese Choujinki Metalder series that his footage was spliced in from. He uses a lot of ninja magic, though, so that’s why he’s The Magician. Oh, and he can fire projectiles out of a top hat. If the world-conquering business doesn’t pan out he can always fall back on kid’s parties, I guess.
So The Magician is a ninja, and looking at him again I’m seeing a very specific kind of ninja – namely, the ninjas from Mortal Kombat. Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something about his stance that’s reminding me of Sub-Zero, Scorpion and all the other colours of the ninjutsu rainbow. This is hardly surprising, because after playing a bunch of VR Troopers it has become clear that Mortal Kombat was the template that the developers were working from. Some of this sensation resides in the murky, vague realm called “feel,” with an indescribable quality of Mortal-Kombat-ness pervading the game, but there are more concrete examples like the special move inputs, the animations of moves like the jumping punches or sweeps and that fact that if you keep tapping punch you’ll keep swinging with alternate fists, just like in a Mortal Kombat game. Perhaps this is why I didn’t get on with VR Troopers as much as I’d have liked to: I’ve never been particularly keen on the old MK games, and while the inclusion of robot gorillas is going some way towards making VR Troopers more palatable it’s still got that feeling of awkward stiffness that I associate with the MK games.


For the next three fights, you fight a clone version of each of the VR Troopers. This adds to the strange sensation that the game is getting easier as you progress, because having played as all the Troopers I know how their special moves work. If I couldn’t hit any bad guys with the Laser Lance,  then I’m sure as hell not going to get hit by it myself. As is becoming a theme in this game, jumping attacks are the way to go.


By this point, the survival rounds are otherwise identical but now last well over a minute, in this case requiring eighty seconds of crouching in a corner and pressing the kick button. The background never changes, and nor do the enemies you’re kicking, who I found out are Grimlord’s generic footsoldiers. They’re called Skugs, a name that makes me think they came out of the The Trapdoor. So the Skugs get kicked over and over again, and the whole thing feels like Manchurian Candidate brainwashing. One day in the future someone’s going to whisper “battle gird” in my ear and I’ll immediately retreat to the corner of the room and start shattering people’s ankles.


This demonic chap is Kamelion, a villain seemingly created specifically for this game. Being called Kamelion, you might expect him to have some kind of camouflage powers, which he does if you count “being able to transform into every other character and use all their special moves” as camouflage.  Sounds like a dangerously unpredictable foe, right? Well, he would be if he didn’t spend the entire fight using his “charge back and forth across the screen dealing loads of damage” move incessantly.


Yeah, that move. It either hits you, or you avoid it, but either way you don’t have much chance to deal any damage of your own. After the game’s difficulty level seemed to be evening out a bit, Kamelion ramps it right back up and honestly? I had to cheat to get past this fight in a reasonable amount of time. This doesn’t bode well for the final showdown with Grimlord, who will surely be even more powerful than Kamelion!


Except, surprise, you don’t have to fight Grimlord. You beat Kamelion, and that’s it, game over. What a cop out. Perhaps the idea is that Grimlord is more of an intellectual than a warrior and having a scene where you pummel a helpless dope who looks like a scrotum in a toy knight helmet might be a bit much. It still feels a bit underwhelming, though, which is a good description of VR Troopers overall.


This is a difficult game to sum up, because while I didn’t have that much fun with it, it’s clear that there was a real effort made to create something good and it gets very close to delivering on that promise. Obviously the graphics are excellent – but I suspect they were prioritised over the gameplay, and with more time spent on polishing things like the hitboxes or the special move inputs VR Troopers could have been a game I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend. It’s certainly not terrible – although the difficulty level, the utterly pointless survival sections and the general clunkiness of the fighting keep it from being good. Perhaps Mortal Kombat fans will get more out of it than I did, but  even if they don’t we’ll always have KongBot.

05/06/2018

WORLD CUP STRIKER (SNES)

The 2018 World Cup is mere days away, and despite the problems of modern football I cannot help but feel excited about it. The history, the drama, the impassioned arguments about whether England will exit the tournament during the group stage or in the first knockout round (I vote for the latter). A welcome stopgap between Halloweens, then, and in the spirit of the occasion here’s Rage and Elite’s 1994 SNES kickabout World Cup Striker!


If you’re wondering why World Cup Striker’s logo is emblazoned upon the Stars and Stripes – the USA being famously disinterested in the world’s favourite sport – that’s because this game was released around the time of the 1994 World Cup, which took place in the USA. Brazil won, no British nations took part and Diana Ross proved she couldn’t handle the pressure of taking a penalty kick. Hey, it's a stressful situation, okay?


So, a football game, then, or soccer if you prefer. World Cup Striker is part of a series that began on the Amiga with 1992’s Striker, a game that was ported to a wide variety of platforms, including lots of home computers and the SNES. After this the genealogy of the Striker franchise gets a little tricky to navigate, mostly because it seemed to get a completely different name in every region it was sold in. For example, (I think) the original Striker was called World Soccer ‘94: Road to Glory in North America and World Soccer in Japan… but there was also a version, possibly released only in France, called Eric Cantona Football Challenge as a tie-in with Manchester United star and occasional thespian Eric Cantona. Ironically, while Cantona may have been a footballing legend in England, he was never particularly highly-regarded in his own country.
As for World Cup Striker, it’s a very slightly enhanced version of the first Striker – the changes being slight enough that I’m not entirely sure what they are. All the teams include the real player names now, if verisimilitude is your thing. Beyond that, though, it’s hard to see WCS as much more than a re-release of the original.


WCS has a lot of options for a SNES football game, from referee strictness – which is what’s depicted above, not a referee about to be lead in front of a firing squad – and weather conditions to a few more involved changes that we’ll get to later. There’s also a good variety of competitions, from friendly matches and leagues to the World Cup itself, which is the tournament I’ll be tackling today.


My original idea was to recreate the groups for this year’s World Cup and then take control of England and play through the tournament, but I encountered some problems. One is that there are more teams in the World Cup finals nowadays than there were in 1994, so I couldn’t fit all the participating nations into my little tournament. The other is that a bunch of countries aren’t included in WCS, so hard luck to nations like Panama and Iran who battled hard through qualifying and made it to the tournament but then suffered the indignity of being left out of this stupid article about a 20-odd-year-old SNES game. I’m sure they’ll get over it, and I replaced them with other teams roughly chosen by geographical proximity. The USA is fairly close to Panama, right? Cool, they can join England’s group.


Also in England’s group are Belgium, and they’ll be my first opponent. Fortunately this game is from 1994 so the Belgian national team isn’t going to be packed with superstars like it is today – it’s been a long time since I played a Striker game and it’d be hard to get back into the swing of things if I had to deal with the likes of Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne. No offence intended to, I dunno, Lorenzo Staelens, of course.


The action is underway, and the first thing you’ll notice about WCS is that it’s fast. That’s the first thing you’ll notice about the gameplay, at least – for the game as a whole your immediate attention is likely to be captured by the digitised voice that sings “world… cup... striiIIiiker” every five bloody seconds while you’re in the menus. But gameplay wise? Definitely the speed. Players move around at a rare old clip and very smoothly, too, with it never taking more than a few seconds to get from one goalmouth to the other.


As expected from a SNES football game the controls aren’t hugely complex, but they’re still a bit more in-depth than something like Super Soccer. You’ve got buttons for kicking the ball a long way in a straight line, and two short-range kicks that are mostly used for passing. I think one of these passes will sort of automatically guide the ball to one of your other players, in the same way that the passing in modern football games like FIFA works, but if that’s the intent then it’s definitely not very consistent about it and the two short pass buttons become fairly interchangeable.
As for defensive options, you can win the ball back by either bumbling around in front of the opposing player until you come away with the ball at your feet, or you can resort to the ever-popular sliding tackle. Sure, a mis-timed slide is liable to make your opponent’s legs pop like the paper snaps in a Christmas cracker, giving them a free kick and potentially getting your player sent off, but sometimes you’ve got to throw caution to the wind. Plus, on the information screen before each match you’re told how strict the referee is going to be and you should definitely pay attention because it does actually make a significant difference. If the referee’s weak, you’ve got much more freedom to put in the kind of tackles that commentators would call “agricultural” but a judge would call “five to ten years for aggravated assault.”


It didn’t take long for England to make the breakthrough, and after dispossessing the Belgian centre-back the ball was coolly slotted home by all-time Premier League top scorer, incredibly dull pundit and the man who lends his name to the unfortunate ‘Shearer Island’ hairstyle – it’s Alan Shearer, everyone! As you can see, every player in WCS has their own unique stats although unless you’re comparing two players at the far extremes of the scale the stats don’t seem to mean all that much.


You even get an action replay when you score, a nice touch for a 16-bit sports game and especially useful in multiplayer, where you can use the frame-by-frame capabilities to show your opponent exactly where they screwed up.


Eventually England run out two-nil winners, with a second half goal by Carlton Palmer completing the victory. It’s nice to see Palmer in the side. Regarded (wrongly) by some as one of the worst players to ever wear an England shirt, I always like Palmer as a kid thanks to his ungainly but none-more-determined style, his tenacity and his commitment, neatly summed up in a famous quote from one of his former managers: “Carlton covers every blade of grass – but that’s only because his first touch is crap.”


Before moving on to the second group stage match against the USA, I took a more in-depth look at the strategy options available when setting up your team. As expected, you can change your formation. The most useful formation change I discovered was putting an extra player or two up front when facing weaker opposition or teams with a very good goalkeeper, because you can pick up a lot of goals by smashing the ball against the keeper or the post and having one of your now-numerous forwards tap home the rebound.
There’s also a “strategy” setting, with various different (and quite vague) playing styles. You can commit more players forward when on the attack, or force your midfielders to hang back in defence, that kind of thing. There’s also a the “open” option, which moves your players so far apart from each other that they have to resort to carrier pigeons to relay vital tactical instructions. It’s nice that the options are there, and they do have some (albeit limited) practical value, but for the most part a 4-4-2 formation with the standard strategy provides the best balance for your team.


Frustrated by my inability to break down a stubborn USA team, I resorted to violence. “The Ref Needs Glasses,” says the digital scoreboard. Maybe the ref can buy himself a nice new pair of spectacles using the large brown envelope I must have slipped him in the dressing room. I can’t think of any other reason I’m getting away with these challenges.


The game against the USA ended in a one-all draw, and bumper profits for whatever company provides the official World Cup crutches. However, the final group game against Greece went much more smoothly, the path to the group stages being almost assured when Alan Shearer scored a fantastic overhead kick within the first fifteen minutes. World Cup Striker definitely has a sense of style about it, and while it’s mostly presented as a serious football game it knows that things like the occasional diving header or bicycle kick really help to capture the excitement that keeps The Beautiful Game popular the world over.


Now it’s into the knockout stage of the tournament, and England’s next opponents are Morocco. They’re about the same level of quality as the other teams I’ve played so far, so between the last few matches and my resurfacing childhood experiences I can take the opportunity to discuss the quirks of WCS’ gameplay.
WCS occupies a level of complexity somewhere just between earlier console football games like Super Soccer and the more realistic titles that began to appear on the 32-bit consoles, like ISS Pro. WCS can offer a slightly more accurate passing game than the almost rugby-like smash-n-grab gameplay of Super Soccer, but there are no through-balls or one-two passes and, for all its options and strategy settings, the most effective way to play is to get the ball to your fastest player and have them run as far as they can. Dribbling the ball is the most expedient way to get results, especially because tackling is quite difficult – it’s fairly common for one team to dribble the ball the entire length of the pitch, only to be dispossessed by the last defender or goalkeeper, allowing the other team to run the length of the pitch, and so on. When two evenly matched teams are playing, WCS can have a tendency to get stuck in a loop of sprinting that makes the action resemble a relay race more than a football match.


Then there’s the business of actually scoring goals – always an interesting proposition in retro football videogames, because they usually have a few tricks that allow you to score easily and consistently from certain positions. Well, I can say that WCS has a mixed record on that front. If you move towards the goal at an angle and shoot diagonally, you’re much more likely to score – but it’s not 100 percent guaranteed, especially against better teams. The players can head the ball and perform some pretty acrobatic manoeuvres, which makes crossing the ball from wide positions a perfectly viable tactic, and that’s something surprisingly rare for football games of this vintage so be sure to take advantage of it. One of the Striker games’ selling points was that you can put a fairly hefty amount of bend on your shots by pressing left or right on the d-pad when you shoot, and this can definitely help when trying to put the ball just out of the keeper’s reach.
The biggest flaw with the goalscoring in WCS, however, is that it’s nigh-impossible to score from any kind of range. I’m not saying you should be able to consistently bang shots into the top corner from thirty yards, but I tried hundreds of shots from just outside the penalty area and the keeper saved every one of them, no matter who I was controlling or what goalie I was facing. Long shots do serve a purpose, though: I scored the vast majority of my goals by poking in a loose ball that the keeper dropped. Sometimes you’ve just got to take what you can get.


After a quarter-final match where I swept Japan aside with a comprehensive four-nil thrashing, it’s on to the semis and a much sterner test against Cameroon. This is where WCS really begins to shine: with two more evenly-matched teams, the game’s strengths come to the fore, most notably the sheer speed of the action and the desperation that comes with said speed. The last-gasp challenges, the mazy runs, each shot that crashes against the crossbar, they all fold together to form a rich, creamy batter of arcade-style action.


Things took an unfortunate turn when the Cameroonian striker’s shot hit the post, ricocheted into Tony Adams and bounced over the line for an own goal. Conceding in this manner is unfortunate, but we can always score a goal of our own and get back into the game. No, the real damage here is psychological, and I fear the defender will never recover. Just imagine the scene. It’s the World Cup semi-final. The most important game of your career so far. The dreams of a nation rest heavy upon your shoulders when suddenly, through no fault of your own, you score an own goal. You look up, hoping to clear your head, but there on the stadium’s scoreboard is a massive picture of a weeping clown giving you a thumbs-down. A more soul-destroying vision can scarcely be imagined.


The game ended in a draw, which means England face a penalty shoot-out in the semi-finals of a major tournament. You’ll forgive me for lacking confidence.
WCS’ penalty set up is straightforward enough: the white arrow moves back and forth across the goal line, and you press shoot when it’s in the place where you want to kick the ball. Easy to understand, but ultimately pointless because the arrow’s movements are so fast and jerky – plus there’s a massive delay when you press the shoot button – that taking a penalty becomes entirely random. It’s a bit weird, honestly, because the rest of WCS is a quality product and the penalties really aren’t, so I assume they were the last thing worked on and the developers were running out of time.


And finally, it’s the, erm, final. By gripping tightly to the bucking bronco of fortune, I made it through the penalty shootout and into the deciding match against Brazil. Things took a... turn at this point. So far I’d been merrily making my way through the game with little problem, own goals notwithstanding, but now I’m facing Brazil and they are insane. They’re ludicrously fast – we’re talking “the unspeakable offspring of Roadruner and The Flash” fast – so once they’ve got the ball it’s almost impossible to get near them, let alone tackle them. They’re consistently able to nip between your players and steal the ball whenever you try even the simplest of passes, their keeper is a near-impassable wall and if the ball ends up at the feet of legendary forward and current Federal Senator Romario, you might as well put the pad down until he’s scored.


I played this match ten or so times, and each time the result was that I was beaten in the same manner that the dinosaurs were “beaten” by a ruddy great meteor. This sounds like it’d be frustrating, but I never really felt that way. They were exciting games, full of desperate challenges and creative curse-word combinations that’d make a Quentin Tarantino script blush.


Somehow, against all the odds, I eventually managed to win via the most unlikely of sources: former Liverpool right-back Rob Jones took advantage of a slack clearance and stabbed the ball into the Brazilian goal, leading to roughly seventy minutes of sustained defending where Brazil somehow managed to not score a goal, hitting the bar more times that Oliver Reed along the way. With this combination of resolute defending and, yes, pure luck, England managed to win the game and lift the World Cup!


And here’s your reward. A picture of a generic footballer and a crematory urn. Presumably Rob Jones’ reward is that he now gets to live in an alternate timeline where he’s world-famous and fabulously wealthy rather than having to retire at the age of 27 due to knee injuries. Ah, what could have been.
Having played through the World Cup, I’ve covered most of what WCS has to offer, but there are a few things left to see before I’m done.


One is that there’s an edit mode, where you can change each team’s kits and the names of their players, allowing you to either keep WCS up-to-date with all the latest team selections or create you own daft teams in the vein of Sensible Soccer. Naturally I’ve gone with the latter, putting together Silent Hill FC. Pyramid Head’s the big, physical striker – think of Pyramid Head as akin to Diego Costa, although obviously less vicious than Diego Costa. I’ve always loved creating my own teams in football games, and I’m still doing it to this day: a friend and I are playing the latest Pro Evolution Soccer at the moment with a team filled with characters from The Sopranos. Tony “El Buitre” Soprano was player of the season in the Premier League last year, although we had to drop Artie Bucco as our first choice keeper because, appropriately enough, he was a bit rubbish.


With the Silent Hill team assembled and resplendent in what I think is a very appropriate “blood and rust” coloured kit, I tried out one of the Striker series’ other big selling points – the indoor mode. Six players on a team and smaller play areas and goals make for an even more frantic experience than the already amped-up full-size matches, and it’s a lot of fun. The walls around the pitch mean that the ball can’t go out of play, further increasing the pace of the action, and I’m sure anyone who’s played this mode in WCS before will tell you that getting around a defender by kicking the ball against the wall and running around to collect the rebound is intensely satisfying. I can confirm that this is still the case.


The SNES had a host of good football games, and World Cup Striker is definitely one of them. Is it realistic? No, not really. It’s too reliant on pure speed and running the length of the pitch for that to be the case. But it is fun, in a madcap, goalmouth-scramble, occasional overhead kick way, especially when played against another person. In an age where FIFA is pretty much the be all and end all of football videogames, it’s nice to go back to a time when soccer titles had a variety of personalities: Super Soccer’s chunky, robust weirdness, the colourful exuberance and semi-realism of Konami’s International Superstar Soccer series and Striker’s high-energy arcade stylings. Some of the computer teams can be brutally difficult, shots on goal can sometimes be hard to follow as they bounce off other players or the woodwork and the penalty system is rubbish, but those things do little to detract from the overall experience and I can definitely recommend you give World Cup Striker a try. And hey, if England win the World Cup by beating Brazil one-nil in the final, I swear I will use my newly-revealed prophetic talents only for the betterment of mankind.

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