Jackie Chan: martial arts superstar and all round good guy, right? WRONG. Reserve your judgement until you witness his callous disregard for nature in Jackie Chan's Action Kung Fu!

Released by Hudson (of Bomberman fame) in 1991 for the PC Engine, (there was also a NES version,) Jackie Chan's Action Kung Fu was always going to interest me because it's about Jackie Chan. I love Jackie Chan, the action-comedy master of drunken stage-crashing and running up walls. Yes, his recent career has bee unfortunate to say the least, but this is the man from Armour of God and City Hunter, so I have to cut him some slack.
The game itself is a fairly standard left-to-right scrolling platformer with some added kung fu. Sadly, the kung fu is limited to a punch, a jumping kick and a crouching cossack-dance style maneuvere, but, look, it's Jackie freakin' Chan! You walk toward the goal, jumping on platforms, kicking animals (more on this later) and riding rocket turtles, in a way that will be instantly (over-)familiar to you if you've ever played, well, any platformer.
The story amounts to one wordless sequence in which Jackie is walking with (or possibly just near) a woman who is then abducted by what appears to be a three-eyed vampire played by Hannibal from The A-Team. Plot neatly disseminated, Jackie sets off to rescue this woman he may well have met just seconds before, pausing only to nod at an elderly Chinese gentleman.
The game starts you off in a nice rural environment, and as our hero takes his first steps, he his confronted with a butterfly. Yes, in a bold step, the game issues one hell of a challenge: telling you that your first action should be to kick a butterfly to death. Not one to refuse a challenge from a simple videogame, I launched my full screaming fury at this butterfly, only to mistime my kick and simply collide with it, causing Jackie to turn pink and lose some health. I'll just leave you with that thought: Jackie Chan, kung fu master, martial arts legend, is hurt by a butterfly flitting against him. This, I thought, does not bode well.
The rest of the stage is much the same. You're attacked by some men who look like Rasputin, snakes, eagles and more butterflies. Jackie is building quite a reputation as an animal abuser already, and we're only half-way through the first level. There are a few tigers to fight, which at least is a more even fight than man against butterfly. There are also frogs which vomit up items when punched, and soon enough you are looking forward to punching frogs until they vomit. Forget Grand Theft Auto, this really is a game to warp the mind.
Jackie soon reaches a temple, where he is beset by men with blue hair wielding toilet brushes. He also gets to punch some mice, and by kicking worms he finally finds something less threatening than a butterfly that he can kill. Hannibal Dracula arrives and turns a statue into a killer robot by striking it with lightning (thus reprogramming it, obviously) for the stage's boss fight. Luckily, the robot is very considerate, and lifts Jackie up to head height so he can punch it to death.
Stage two finds you in one of platform gaming's favourite cliches - the lava cave, which in a frankly Herculean effort to cram as many cliches into one level as possible, later turns into an ice cave. Beautiful. The fire section has phoenixes for Jackie to sate his bloodlust upon. At least I assume they are phoenixes: they may just be the eagles, but on fire. Either way, they are extinct now, thanks in no small part to Jackie Chan. Some bald fellows try and hadoken you to death, and at this point I realised that Jackie can also hadoken by holding the attack button down. Some pink bats swoop down: they die in a horrible fireball. Pink bats are, sadly, now extinct. Disturbingly, if you leave Jackie to stand still for a moment, he glances out of the screen pleadingly, as if he is trying to make you complicit in his butchery. You're one creepy bastard, Jackie. The ice portion of the level is almost identical, but with palette-swapped enemies: the bald guys now throw icicles instead of fireballs. In keeping with neither of the level's themes, the boss is a big guy with a ball-and-chain, who thumps the floor, causing it to rise so you can ride in up to his face and, you guessed it, punch him.
The third stage is up on a cliff, and starts with a platform section where you must jump across the shells of rocket-powered turtles whilst avoiding Jackie's deadliest foe: butterflies. There are a lot of shells here. Gamera must have taken some time out from being a friend to children to actually have some of his own. At the top of the cliff is a forest populated by Kappa and flying pufferfish, and at the end of the forest, the villain turns one of the item-vomiting frogs into a giant frog monster. You cannot help but feel that this frog volunteered for the job in order to get revenge for all his frog brothers, and he tries to defeat you by firing tadpoles out of his mouth. This is not a normal form of reproduction, and Jackie triumphs over this mockery of the natural order by kicking it until it is dead.
I should make a quick mention of the special stages you can find dotted around the levels. There are four in all: bouncing on clouds to get fruit, hitting a rock either high or low depending on the icon, fighting some wooden training dummies and my personal favourite, punching salmon that jump out of a waterfall. The fact that this is my favourite says a lot about how Jackie Chan's animal-hating ways have blackened my spirit.
The next stage is atop a snowy mountain, where a constant assault by goddamn Yetis throwing goddamn rocks will test your goddamn patience to its goddamn limit. You get to fight an honest-to-god martial arts expert here, a mysterious woman who has all the right moves, until you beat her and it turns out she was a tiger all along. You know, Jackie Chan's Action Kung Fu can be abbreviated to JCAKF: this could also mean Jackie Chan: Always Killing Fauna, or even Jesus Christ, Animal Killing's Fun. Coincidence? I think not. The level continues high up in the clouds, where you bounce across the cumulonimbus avoiding the swarm of high-altitude pufferfish until you reach the boss, a large Cyclops who I ended up feeling sorry for after repeatedly kicking him in his eyeball. It just seemed like he wanted to be left alone, and I kicked him in the sclera. Sad, really. In a nice touch, his eye gets more bloodshot every time you kick it, which did nothing to assuage my feelings of guilt.
And so on to the final level, the villain's castle. Things start getting a bit Castlevania here, with the clockwork backgrounds, conveyor belts and floating skulls which perform the task of Castlevania's Medusa heads, i.e. to get right in your bloody way when you're jumping. A demon chases you across the first area, slamming into the floor so you can't jump properly. Once you've avoided him for a while, he goes for the head-on approach, and once you manage to knock his armour off he is defeated easily enough. There's a whole section of moving platforms with fat firebreathing men on them, which is nice and irritating, although mercifully short. And why are firebreathers in games always fat? Apart from Dhalsim, obviously. I digress. The final hurdle before the last boss is a group of five dragons that you fight one at a time: four of them are easy enough, but the purple one is a cheap son of a bitch who fills the whole screen with what I assume is a poisonous gas, leaving you no place to stand. It seems the only way to defeat his is to stand in front of him, mash punch and hope he runs out of health first. If he does, you reach the final boss, Mister three-eyed martial-arts vampire. Actually, I've decided he looks more like George Hamilton. Either way, he jumps around the room, throwing what look like CDs at you and trying to poke you with his nails, while a dragon looks on impassively from the background. He probably sees this kind of thing all the time. The story is so vague that this could be a weekly thing for these two guys, like playing squash to keep them supple, y'know, now they're getting on a bit. This fight is actually pretty good fun, and a lot of JCAKF is fun: it's nothing unique, but on the whole it does what it does well, with decent controls and a pretty good difficulty curve (bastard Yetis and purple dragons aside). The music is decent, occasionally veering into good (especially the ice cave level) and the graphics aren't terrible. I certainly don't regret playing through it all. Although I'm not at the end yet: after defeating the vampire, Jackie frees the woman that may or may not know him. However, the villain still lives, except now he's a giant spider. Jackie chases him on a flying cloud, avoiding the spider's boomerangs (well, they do have big spiders in Australia) and punching him in the thorax until he is defeated once and for all. The ending rolls, Jackie walks through the changing seasons of the year, and the programmers appear with their face placed over the heads of the enemies. It's pretty cool. Now, after kicking his way through a vast swathe of the animal kingdom, Jackie can finally rest, and so can I: I'm off to watch Wheels on Meals again. I advise you all to do the same.

P.S. Here's some Youtube gameplay footage: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8EqJiSSq2NM



Existential despair in cube form! No, not a box set of Chris de Burgh albums: it's Sony's excellent PS1 puzzle game, Intelligent Qube.

Released in 1997 in Japan as I.Q., it was renamed to Intelligent Qube for the US release and, in possibly the only ever example of a game having its name changed to sound more Japanese, it was released as Kurushi in Europe in late '97. I vividly remember playing a demo of Kurushi when I was around 14 and absolutely loving it, as well having the announcer's stern cry of "Again!" so indelibly etched into my brain that I never forgot it in the twelve-or-so years since I played that demo. For some reason or other, I never owned IQ: Possibly I couldn't find a copy, or possibly because on the rare occasions I received a new game, there were other titles ahead of it in the queue. Either way, I recently got to play it again, and it's still as much fun as ever. So let's have a look!
Mostly, this is a game about cubes. Many, many cubes. Right-angles as far as the eye can see. Cubes of all colours and sizes. Well, okay, one size. In fact, this game is so cube-centric that I started to wonder if it didn't start out as some kind of desensitization therapy for people with a severe fear of cubes (Hexahedrophobes?) until someone realised it would make a damn fine videogame.

As with all good puzzle games, IQ plays well because it works on a simple idea, with a few added complications. The gameplay goes like this: you control a tiny, faceless (literally) man in a shirt and tie called Eliot. Eliot stands on a long, flat floor of cubes. Some cubes rise from the floor at one and and then start to roll toward the other end one row at a time. Eliot has to "capture" (destroy) the cubes before they either a) fall off the other end or b) horribly crush him to death beneath their relentless march. To capture a cube, Eliot marks one of the squares on the floor: when a cube lands on a marked square, pressing the button again captures the cube and makes it disappear. Get rid of all the cubes and the next wave starts, get rid of enough waves and the next stage begins, finish all nine stages and the game ends. Simple enough, but the game has a couple of complications. Along with the regular cubes, there are black Forbidden Cubes and green Advantage cubes. Forbidden Cubes must not be destroyed and instead must be left to roll peacefully into oblivion. If you accidentally destroy a Forbidden Cube, one row of the floor falls away. This is a Bad Thing. As for Advantage Cubes, when you capture them, a green marker is left on that square. Pressing triangle then captures any cubes in that square and the eight squares surrounding it. There's gameplay footage on YouTube if that description doesn't make much sense, anway. So, it has good, honest, simple puzzle gameplay. That's great, and as it is it stands up well when compared to any puzzle game, but IQ has a few things up it's sleeve that makes it just that little bit special.
First of all, the music really is exceptional. Instead of going down the mindless plinky-plonk route of most puzzle game music (seriously, try and remember a tune from a puzzle game that isn't Tetris,) IQ went for a full-on orchestral score that is both bombastic and melancholy and frankly, it sounds like the soundtrack to a Hollywood adventure film from the '80's that never existed, Indiana Jones and the Rolling Doom-Cubes or some crazy thing. The music for the fourth stage especially may well be the theme music for some parallel universe's version of the Superman movies. John Williams would probably give up a testicle to have written some of these. You can get the soundtrack at Galabdia Hotel, and I recommend you do so.
Another strong point is the presentation. Everything is very stark, with black and white text and plain fonts with the occasional wire-frame map which gives the whole experience an almost Cold War feel, and it boy does it feel different from other puzzle games. The announcer should get special credit: from the now-legendary (to me, at least) way he says "Again!" when Eliot is crushed to his sober tones when announcing the start of a new level, he matches up with the mood perfectly.
And mood is the final thing which really sets IQ apart for me. Where most puzzlers are bright and cheerful, IQ is sterile, official-seeming and claustrophobic. There's an almost Kafkaesque feel to the whole thing, with the player trapped in a black void, forced to constantly fight against the relentless tide of the cubes with no chance of escape. Even when you finish the final stage, poor old Eliot gets no relief: the level gradually falls away until he is standing on a single cube, which then falls into the darkness. Now that I think about it, that's one hell of a depressing ending. Imagine if Yoshi's Cookie ended with the cookies forming an impregnable vault around Yoshi from which he could never escape. Actually that's quite funny, but then I'm not a big Yoshi fan. Maybe IQ is a metaphor for life itself - The cubes rolling towards the player represent life's inexorable crawl towards the grave, Forbidden cubes are society's rules that must not be broken, and the Advantage cubes are rare moments of good fortune which even then can backfire on you. Or maybe I shouldn't have drunk so much coffee before writing this article at two-thirty in the morning. Either way, I'd like to see more puzzle games where the main character is constantly in mortal danger. Perhaps a Dr. Mario clone where you force-feed your "patient" experimental hallucinogens, or a crossover between Professor Layton and the Saw movies. Look professor, I found a puzz-aarrrghble!
So that's IQ / Intelligent Qube / Kurushi. It has a few more features, including unlockable characters who move around a little faster, adjustable difficulty levels (playing IQ on the top speed is so stressful most doctors won't let you do it,) and even an editor mode that becomes avaliable when you complete it once. Most of all though, it has great gameplay in a unique setting. Sometimes it goes for as little as £10 on eBay, so try and pick it up: you won't be disappointed.



Yee-haw, I suppose, because today I'll be moseying my way through Sunset Riders. Released in 1993 by Konami, Sunset Riders probably has the highest concentration of rootin' tootin' to be found in any SNES game, so saddle up as I discuss some of its finer points. Okay, I'm going to stop the cowboy talk now, I promise.

First of all, there's the classic Konami logo, glittering like a joyous beacon in the sea of dreck that made up eighty per cent of SNES titles, and always a reassuring sight. Then the title screen, complete with horses and chock-full of cowboy font. It's certainly a game that makes its intentions plain. There's a nice little cartoon intro sequence (with some excellent music) where our heroes are introduced, firing guns and generally acting Old-West-like. Steve the cowboy, Billy the cowboy, Bob the Cowboy and Cormano the Mexican all seem to have the shooting prowess; they also appear to be colour-blind, judging by their outfits which are all in the sort of migraine-inducing neon colours that ice-pops used to be before government legislation put an end to that sort of thing.

On to character selection, and there's only one choice: It has to be Cormano, and any other choice is wrong, wrong, wrong. Why? Because he's a bearded bandito-looking fellow wearing a hot-pink sombrero and poncho ensemble and carrying two shotguns. Honestly, I think you'd have to carry two shotguns to get away with an outfit like that. Cormano does also have the advantage of firing in a spread pattern, but that really is pretty low down on the list of reasons for choosing him.

Level one begins, and the most striking thing is how colourful the game is. Maybe I've spent to much time playing PS3 games, but everything here seems to be in a kind of blazing Warner Brothers, Saturday morning, E-number- laden technicolour. In fact, the game looks like it was based on a cartoon that doesn't exist, an effect heightened by the fluid animations and the music. The music is very good, as Konami music so often was, and bears a strong resemblance to the music in Turtles in Time, especially the "orchestra hit" effect. I'm fairly certain they were composed by the same people. Anyway, Cormano rolls into town and instantly starts murdering anything that looks vaguely like a cowboy. The gameplay is Contra-esque, with the ability to fire in eight directions and also jump onto a higher plane most of the time: Cowboys throw themselves at you from all sides and, quite often, directly into the path of Cormano's bullets. He does produce a lot of bullets, especially when he picks up a couple of gun upgrades. One way to get upgrades is to walk into certain background houses, where a woman who I'm sure is nothing more than a nice young lady will, you know, power you up. Increase your firepower, so to speak. Oh, you people and your dirty minds. The level continues in this vein for a while, broken up by a buffalo stampede which our hero calmly deals with by jumping on the buffalo's backs and running along them like the T-1000. Cormano's a pretty cool guy like that. Stampede dealt with, it's time for the meat of Sunset Riders: the boss battle. The levels themselves are fairly short, so you spend a lot of time fighting the bosses, and a great bunch they are. First up is Simon Greedwell, who is dangerously close to being a very offensive Jewish stereotype. He's holed up in a house packed with gunmen and, for some curious architectural reason, has a pair of barrels for a windowledge. Bad guys appear at the windows, Simon hides behind his barrels and lead fills the air. The battle is a fairly standard affair, dodge the bullets, remove the barrels and line the greedy bastard's lungs with lead.
Back before CD-based games, synthesized speech was a big deal for me. Any time it popped up it I loved it like I loved seeing Ripley bitch-slap the Queen with the powerloader. Which is a lot. On his death, Greedwell falls to the ground and uses his dying breath to utter the classic "Bury me with my money!" Sure he sounds like his voice belongs to an electric frog made of cotton wool, but that's part of the charm. All the bosses get some voice lines, and hearing all of them was one of my main reasons for playing through the game in the first place.
Level two sees you on a horse. An honest to god horse! Your progress is hampered by the fact a wagon that is apparently transporting logs is right in front of you, and some n'er-do-well is throwing the precious timbery cargo in front of your horse. Obviously, you have to leap to avoid these: equally obviously you have to shoot everything that moves. Overcoming these obstacles, you reach the boss. A little more agile than Greedwell, Hank throws himself around with gay abandon behind some boxes, stopping occasionally to fire some bullets at you which look rather like lime and mandarin Tic-Tacs. After a while, he jumps in close to try and clobber you, but Cormano is easily up to the task. Perhaps his outfit dazzled his opponent. Hank cries "You got me!" in his crunchy digital voice, and the level ends.
Between levels two and three, a bonus stage arrives, in which cowboys pop up around the edges of the screen and you have to shoot them, much in the manner of the shooting sections from Snatcher. More dead cowboys equals more gold. By which I mean points. By which I certainly do not mean prizes, more’s the pity.
The third level is set in a larger town, and follows much the same pattern, except there is now the additional hazard of a rope climb over a puddle of burning oil, and all the buildings are bright green and purple. Maybe the Joker is in town. Speaking of jokers, the level's boss is a large shirtless chap by the name of Dark Horse, who probably turned to villainy after one too many people said things like "I hear you went out with Debbie from Accounts last night. Well, aren't you a... Dark Horse!” These are the things that drive a man to madness. His fight is similar to Greedwell's, except he's on a horse. Actually, having taken a closer look at Dark Horse, I have come to the conclusion that he isn't an Old West bad guy; no, he's a male stripper dressed as a fireman. I think it's the braces. Dark Horse is soon dispatched, and his body, slumped over his horse's neck, is carried away. Suddenly, a woman is thrown out of the saloon and asks you to sort out the scum within.
The whole of level four is a boss fight, with two hideous little men called the Smith Brothers, who throw bombs and fire at you. It is at this point that Cormano gets a chance to swing from a chandelier and shoot a guy, which I'm sure is the dream of an awful lot of people. This is the first boss that's a little more challenging, but the reward is well worth it: The saloon's dancers (I presume they are dancers, and not some very strange townsfolk) perform a can-can of sorts, while Cormano kneels before them and shouts "Yahoo!". Incidentally, I took a closer look at Cormano: his sombrero appears to be studded with rhinestones around the rim. I guess he's even more fabulous than I first thought. These dancers then tell Mister Fabulous about his main target; Richard Rose and his three henchmen.

Our hero boards a train for level five. You have to have a train level in a western game: it's an immutable law, like the conservation of energy, or former Hollyoaks actors appearing in panto (I hear Jake Dean is great in Aladdin). After a lot of, well, shooting, along with admiring the excellent parallax scrolling effect, El Greco appears. Greco

reminds me rather a lot of Senor Ding-Dong from the Simpsons, and he gads about merrily trying to lacerate you with his whip and generally being an arse. He falls soon enough, and it's onward to levels six, which is a long climb up a mountain. And you know what this mountain has? That's right, lots of falling rocks, along with some very nice music, possibly the best in the game. At the top, Chief Wigwam awaits at an Indian burial ground (I've seen Pet Semetary, so I know what one looks like). Isn't being called Chief Wigwam like being called King Palace, or Duke Large Country Estate? Also, it's very difficult for me to not type Chief Wiggum every time I write his name. Anyway, as a boss, the chief is balls-out tough. Jumping around and throwing knives is his thing, and he's real good at it, as you will find out when you die here ONE HUNDRED TIMES. If you manage to defeat him, his sister approaches and begs you not to kill him because "he was only following orders". If I'd had the option, I would have told him it didn't excuse the Nazis so it sure didn't excuse him, and then blast him, but I guess Cormano is less of a sociopath than I am, so he lets him live and moves on to level seven. It's back on the horse for this level, and I'd like to take a moment to discuss the horse's colour scheme. A dark red horse with a pale yellow mane, neon pink saddle and reins and fluorescent green accessories? I'll just let you soak that in. Still, Bob's horse is cream with a mint-green mane and, aside from making me want mint ice cream, is even further from the realms of possibility. The level itself is disappointingly bland and flat, and at the end what appears to be a shaven gorilla named Paco Loco awaits, sitting high upon his fortified wall, shooting at you with a machine gun while his associates throw grenades at. After Chief Wigwam's brutal assault, Loco is a bit of a relief, frankly. Several shotgun blasts and he falls to the ground, saying "Hasta la bye bye!" in disturbingly child-like voice. Well, look at that, you killed a retard. In your defence, he was trying to mow you down with a machine gun, but I doubt the jury will get past the “killed a disabled person" element of your trial. With that obstacle removed, you can move on to the final level.
Richard Rose is your target, and his picture shows he bears a disconcerting resemblance to Steve Buscemi. The level starts off as a fort, with a little bit of everything from the previous levels thrown in, and soon you reach the final area: Rose's Mansion. As with all good villains, Rose is English, greets you with a hearty "Cherrio (sic) Old Chap!" and promptly launches you into a bullet hell worthy of Radiant Silvergun. Yes, the screen is 90 per cent bullets at this point, with Rose actually aiming at you (as opposed to just firing straight forwards/upwards) and goons pouring in from every angle. Eventually the lackeys die away, and it's just you versus Buscemi. Then he hits you with a sliding kick, and you die instantly. The rage begins to mount. Death by bullet? Fair enough. Knives, bombs, fire? Fair enough. A fey Englishman gently sliding his loafers against my no-doubt incredibly butch ankles? You, sir, are a son of a bitch. Eventually, you'll do him enough damage and he'll fall. But what's this? He stands up and removes a metal plate from under his shirt. At this point, he's gone from son of a bitch to motherfucker. You go through the motions again, and this time he stays dead. His final words? "I say, bit of bad luck!". Oh Richard/Steve, I take back all the bad things I ever said about you.

And that's the end of Sunset Riders! Your reward? A single screen that says "Congratulations! Good Job Podner!" That's it. I went through all that just to get one lousy congrats screen? And what the fuck is a Podner!? Goddammit all.

So, that's Sunset Riders. It's not a truly classic game; it has some problems with difficulty spikes and not being able to see enemy bullets and such, but it's done with huge charm in the graphics and music, the gameplay is solid and it's just good, old-fashioned fun, especially with a friend. Look it up some time. I hope you've enjoyed this little trip through the Old West, and I hope you'll join me next time, Podners!

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