Biggest Waste of a License
Having been granted the rights to the most famous videogame character of all time, the Software Toolworks promptly created Mario’s Early Years: Fun With Letters, a game that had little to do with Super Mario and even less to do with fun. However, even that didn’t feel like as much of a waste as RoboCop 3. Ocean had the chance to work with one of the most iconic action stars of the 1980s, a servant of truth and justice who spends of a lot of his time doing the very videogame-y thing of shooting bad guys with a massive gun. What we got was a leaden crawl through boring environments, some terrible platforming and one of the worst final “boss” encounters I’ve ever seen.
A category that always offers up a cavalcade of hilarious mistranslations and twisted perversions of grammar, and 2016 is no different even though it feels like I played fewer poorly-localised Japanese games this year.
For example, here’s the infamous “submarine gun” from Hidden Files: Echoes of JFK. A simple error from “submachine gun,” sure, but one that made me emit an ugly, seal-like bark of laughter when I saw it. I think it’s because it’s said by someone who is supposedly a competent FBI agent and not an overexcited five-year-old on a school trip to the Imperial War Museum.
Potentially the most platformy platformer ever – in terms of sheer number of platforms, at least – Evil Stone included this wonderful level description, even if the level itself wasn’t all that scandalous.
My absolute favourite of this year, however, is from the graphic adventure He-Man Super Adventure, where commanding He-Man to look at his own father results in this withering response. Prince Adam of Eternia is ice-cold.
A special mention goes to Halloween Trick or Treat 2, which resurrected that most gothic of phrases: “spooky dooky.”
Zaid, from Alumer and Taito’s arcade sword-em-up Gladiator, was a strong early contender. There’s no deep reasoning behind that choice, it’s just that the description the game gives him engenders a feeling of kinship in me, as I am also a big good-for-nothing fellow. I also played Mega Man 3 this year, a game which saw the introduction of Protoman to the series. I do like Protoman, and he adds a little mystery and intrigue to a game series which had already firmly rammed itself into a specific groove even after just three entries. However, on reflection there’s really only one choice for the position of “best character.”
In a year where I wrote about not one but two Final Fight games, this honour has to go to Mike Haggar, the Mayor of Justice himself. What is it about Haggar that gives him such an enduring appeal? Is it that the concept of a pro-wrestler turned mayor who beats up street gangs like you or I do the laundry is just so resonant, so powerful, that his appeal is timeless? Is it that we all yearn to ruled by politicians who won’t stand by while injustice goes unpunished? Is it the moustache? Who knows, but I do know that everyone loves Haggar. Sorry, Cody.
Speaking of Final Fight, that’s got a good soundtrack, and the first stage theme from Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is one of the all-time classic videogame tracks – it’s been my ringtone for, oh, five years or so now. Not many of the games I played this year had particularly memorable soundtracks, though, so the top honour goes to the one that I’ve been listening to for over twenty years: Mega Man 3.
Is this decision partly down to nostalgia? Yeah, probably. The Protoman theme featured above still manages to make me feel a bit emotional, probably because it reminds me of being a kid and finally finishing MM3, only to realise that meant there was no more Mega Man 3 for me to play. It’s a great soundtrack even when divorced from the the context of my childhood, though, and if you were going to listen to one soundtrack from this year’s VGJunk games then that’d be the one.
You can always rely on British home computer games to be weird as hell, hailing as they do from a time when anyone willing to sit down and learn how to code could create whatever goddamn game they liked. Thus, this year's weirdest game was definitely Nicotine Nightmare on the ZX Spectrum
A tiny man attempts to destroy all cigarettes for the good of the world’s health. He does this by extinguishing giant cigarettes with a watering can while the devil – presumably the patron saint of nicotine – tries to stop him. Then our hero halts all cigarette production by visiting one factory and flipping some levers. Yes, I’d definitely say that this is a weird game.
An arcade game from Konami about a jungle cat that fights robots is a description that certainly piqued my interest, but that piquing was brutally slapped down the moment I started playing Black Panther. It’s not just that the game’s ugly enough to be prosecuted for crimes against retinas, it’s not just that it gets grindingly difficult to play, it’s that it’s so boring. Did I mention it’s about a jungle cat that fights robots? And yet it’s still insufferably dull.
Most Pleasant Surprise
Of all the games I played this year that I hadn’t heard of before, Data East’s Nitro Ball was the one I had the most unexpected fun with. An inspired melding of top-down shooter and pinball, Nitro Ball offers up a frantic, relentless blast of arcade action that comes packed with great graphics and fun visual details, a good soundtrack and that wonderful feeling of arcade “bigness” that makes it a great choice for some uncomplicated arcade fun.
Just edging out Nitro Ball on the “pleasant surprise” scale is Ninja Gaiden Shadow. The idea of squeezing the tight, precise NES Ninja Gaiden games onto the Game Boy was one that caused me some trepidation, but Tecmo and Natsume did an excellent job: rather than simply stuffing the NES Ryu Hayabusa into a Game Boy game, they reworked the action to make it smaller, simpler but no less Ninja Gaiden-ish. The result is one of the best pure action games on the original Game Boy.
It’s probably this star-spangled toad from the “educational” Amiga title All About America. What could be more American than a frog in a waistcoat doing a tap-dance routine? Now that’s patriotism.
Whoo boy, I played some absolutely god-awful shite this year! Where to start? Oh yes, the Game Boy and Game Boy Color, always a good place to go if you’re looking for games that make you regret humanity’s evolution of opposable thumbs. There was Casper, a collection of minigames so dull and dreary it would, appropriately enough, serve as a fitting afterlife for unrepentant sinners. There was Sesame Street Sports, a cynical, barely-there dry fart of a game that made a mockery of its own title by only including one (joyless, grim) sport. Moving up a generation there was the bootleg SNES version of Street Fighter EX, a game that gets some slack for being an unofficial pirate conversion but then loses all that slack by being a borderline-unplayable mess of unfathomable hitboxes and controls so bad you’d get similar results if you dunked your controller in a vat of boiling oil. And who could forget the PS1 nightmare VIP, a horrifying waxwork museum of dreadful CGI, an action game that removed all the action and replaced it with insultingly shallow QTEs?
Even worse than all those was this year’s VGJunk nadir – and possibly the nadir of all videogaming – the Game Boy Color (what a shock) thing Rugrats: Totally Angelica. It represents almost every single way a videogame can be bad, all crammed into a single package. It’s a compilation of utterly abysmal mini-”games,” some of which barely work. The graphics and sound are so bad they make you thankful that the Game Boy can’t emit smells, because if Totally Angelica was an odour it’d be soiled nappies being heated in a microwave. It’s got the cynical stink of a corporate cash-in all over it, combined with the morally unpleasant aspect of applying make-up to a small child. Angelica wears a sweater with swastikas on it. Totally Angelica is, in short, the absolute worst, and it has finally supplanted NSYNC: Get to the Show as the worst game I’ve ever played.
Fortunately, I also played some good games to balance out all this crap. Chief amongst them were a trio of Capcom classics. Final Fight set the template for the beat-em-up and did so with style: visceral combat, huge sprites and tons of character. Ghouls ‘n Ghosts might be rightly famous for its punishing difficulty, but its gameplay is so precise and its world so charming that it deserves its classic status. I came close to picking Mega Man 3 to win this category, too. It’s the pinnacle of the NES Mega Man games, with just enough complexity in the gameplay to keep you invested in a longer-than-you’d-expect game that’s always full of surprises (and robot cats that attack with robot fleas).
That said, I’m going with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Normally I’d discount it because I didn’t write a full article about it, but I did write two articles about specific parts of Symphony of the Night and I could write a dozen more, which just goes to show you how great the game is. Not only is it fun to play, this grand adventure of exploration and magical combat, but every moment of the game is endowed with the sense that everyone who worked on it put their heart and soul into its creation. From the core gameplay to the hundreds of tiny details, the expressive graphics and the phenomenal soundtrack, Symphony of the Night is one of those game I will never tire of telling people to go and play.
Obligatory Mention of a Halloween Hidden Object Game
Yes, I played Halloween Trick or Treat 2 this year and yes, I really enjoyed it. Do any of the other games I wrote about this year include a location marked as “Mall and Dracula’s Castle”? No, I didn’t think so.
As for the article I most enjoyed writing this year, there are quite a few contenders. The aforementioned Halloween Trick or Treat 2 was a good time, and obviously I wouldn’t keep writing about Symphony of the Night if doing so didn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy deep inside. Aside from those, the article about why Silent Hill 4 is actually a comedy was a lot of fun to put together, even if it did mean I had to play through the second half of Silent Hill 4 again. It definitely seemed to resonate with a lot of people, anyway.
But it’s International Superstar Soccer Pro that gave me the most pleasure to ramble on about, combining as it does my twin loves of videogames and football, plus a dollop of nostalgia. The remarkable story of Danish courage, a commentator who could do with a lie down in dark, quiet room and the emergence of a hero called Pingel. It had a bit of everything, really.
Well, that’s it for 2016. I will leave you with the reminder that videogames are, on the whole, pretty great. I enjoy them, anyway, even when they're Z-grade licensed-property misery engines. Maybe my new year’s resolution should be to get out more. Oh well, I wonder what 2017 will bring? More of the same, I shouldn't wonder.