It’s gaming with a social conscience here at VGJunk today. Well, sort of. An effort to safeguard public health, promulgated by a tiny man with no arms, whose crusade for human betterment attracts the ire of Satan himself. It’s just like that time Lucifer tried to corrupt Jamie Oliver’s eternal soul because he wanted kids to have healthier school lunches, only with more beeping noises than R2-D2’s rap album. Brought to the ZX Spectrum in 1985 by Atlantis Software, it’s the browbeat-em-up Nicotine Nightmare!

There’s not much of a title screen for this game, so instead here’s the loading screen. I only mention it because that “Gold” logo is making me want to eat a McVities Gold Bar, despite them being sickly-sweet enough that I’d regret it after two bites. I wouldn’t stop eating it after two bites, of course, but I’d be regretful.

Speaking of doing regrettable things to your body, that’s what Nicotine Nightmare is all about, specifically the vile sin of smoking. Yes, Nicotine Nightmare is here to convince you all to give up smoking, although having played the game I’m not sure it had any idea about how to convince people to quit. It doesn’t tell you why smoking is bad, aside from a standard governmental health warning, but it definitely wants you to feel like smoking makes baby Jesus cry. It’s not subtle in that regard: equating stopping smoking and saving the world seems like a bit of a reach. I’m not sure switching to e-cigs is going to have much impact on global warming. I must admit this opening text had me in something of a moral quandary – there was a moment when my answer to the question “do you sincerely want to save the world” was “no, not while there’s a trilogy of movies about goddamn Tetris in the works,” but in the end I had to say yes.

This could be a problem. I’m not good at tests, especially not tests of my strength of character. Having said that, I played all the way through this game so there must be some steel at my core. Also, full disclosure, you’re probably asking the wrong person to stamp out smoking, because I am a smoker and a thirty-year-old Spectrum game isn’t going to succeed where willpower and Nicorette have failed. Why do I smoke? Because I’m a fucking idiot, that’s why, and I don’t need Beelzebub to remind me.

The game begins and the name Nicotine Nightmare starts to make sense, because the concept is reminiscent of a fever dream. You control the small man with the yellow face. He’s trapped in a nonsensical dreamscape of giant cigarettes, but fortunately he’s brought two watering cans with him. It was a choice between gardening tools and trousers, apparently. You can fly up, down, left and right, and your goal is to extinguish six cigarettes by poking them with your watering cans. That’s simple enough, although the twitchiness of the controls means that it can be difficult to line yourself up correctly. You can douse three cigs before your watering cans run dry, and when that happens you have to float back down to the bottom-right and refill them at the water pump. However, the devil is not about to let one of his most finely-crated tools of human misery be destroyed by the less-famous brother of Mr. Chips from Catchphrase, and so the Prince of Lies dashes about re-lighting the cigarettes you’ve put out. He’s a real hands-on kind of boss. Actually, that’s a pretty insensitive thing to say about someone who doesn’t have any arms.

Put out enough cigarettes and the stage comes to an end. Satan, defeated and humiliated, returns to the bowels of Hell and is not seen again for the rest of the game. If I was the devil and I’d just been shown up by a floating weirdo armed with a pair of watering cans, I’d keep my head down for a while too.

Nicotine Nightmare certainly doesn’t go lightly on the bombast, does it? It promises a task somehow even arduous than beating the devil, an assault on the cigarette factories of the world that will take months to complete, the most elaborate case of industrial sabotage in human history. So, how is this going to work? Am I going to be flying over to Philip Morris headquarters and pouring a watering can full of LSD-laced water into the coffee pots?

Never mind, it’s a generic platformer now, like Jet Set Willy but without the precision and strange charm to carry it. Your character, who continues the game’s tradition of not giving anyone arms, can move left and right and jump. That’s it. He has to get into the factory – the extremely well-signposted factory, they must have had some trouble with delivery drivers relying too much on their satnavs – and turn off all the machinery by jumping into the levers dotted around the place. This first screen is extremely simple, with the only complication being that you die if you fall too far so don’t just drop down to the exit once you’ve hit the switch like I did.

The next screen is considerably more difficult. A constant stream of cigarettes rolls down the ramp, and you must hop over them Donkey Kong-style to reach the lever. Naturally, the slightest contact with these cigarettes is immediately fatal to our hero, which makes his decision to take down the tobacco giants either extremely brave or deeply stupid. I look forward to the sequel, where a man with a shellfish allergy decides to punch every prawn in the world’s oceans to death.
So, this is a tough little section at first, until you’ve gotten used to the way your character handles. Everything takes place on an invisible grid rather than the smooth scrolling of something like Super Mario, so each press of a direction key always moves you exactly one “space” horizontally. When you jump, there’s no smooth arc, but instead you travel in a perfect diagonal until you reach the apex and fall straight downwards. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that as a system, especially for a ZX Spectrum game, but the problem is that Nicotine Nightmare requires some precise jumping and it’s completely down to luck whether pressing right and jump will make our hero jump diagonally-right or take one step right and then jump. It’s a small difference between the two things, but the wrong one almost always means death.

Next up: a daring raid on the manager’s office. I suspect the manager feels a little insecure about his leadership position, that sign on his office is so big King Kong could use it as a cummerbund when he goes to the Monster Island prom. Maybe that’s why the manager is so intent on killing our hero, he feels like he’s got to be aggressive in dealing with this saboteur so nobody can question his authority… and yet, the two men are identical, as though the programmers wanted us to understand that anyone could rise up and be the hero that eradicates all tobacco products from the world, if only they’d open their eyes to the evil they’re perpetrating. A cynic might say they’re the same person so the developer didn’t have to draw a new sprite, but I’m going to stick with my reading about the innate potential for goodness that lies within all people.

Okay, now this is just getting weird. Who is this factory making cigarettes for, the Jolly Green Giant? I think our hero has been driven so insane by his anti-tobacco crusade that he sees anything cylindrical as a cigarette and he’s accidentally blundered into a lumber mill. God help him if he ever visits the Parthenon, who knows what kind of prison time he’d be looking at if he knocked that down.
The fiddliness of the platforming really comes to the fore here, because it’s all about jumping from the exact, correct position rather than timing, and as a result it’s kind of a pain in the arse. There are four levers, and they have to be triggering in a certain sequence, only the game doesn’t tell you that sequences so you have to figure out the order before you can plan out the most expedient route. It’s not too bad if you get a bit of luck with the controls, though, and once you’ve hit all the switches it’s a simple matter of jumping over to the giant levitating cigarette and riding it to the exit.

Congratulations, you’ve done it. No-one will ever smoke another cigarette again. I’m sure all the people put out of work by this fact will land on their feet somehow. Maybe they can switch to growing weed instead. What do you mean, you don’t believe this is the end of the game? Do you think they’d let Mr. Lung Liberator stand on the podium at the Olympics if he hadn’t saved the world? Yes, the entire game really is just those five screens. You can complete Nicotine Nightmare in less than five minutes if you know what you’re doing and don’t get distracted by, for example, going for a smoke break. I know this was a budget game, but the pickings here are so slim that if you looked at them from a certain angle they’d be bloody invisible. What is there works in a way that’s occasionally frustrating but no more so than many other Spectrum platformers, but it’s so shallow that to try and come to any kind of conclusion about it is pointless. You might as well try assigning a star rating to a blank piece of cardboard: whatever score you give it, it’s going to feel ridiculous. Getting people to quit smoking is a commendable goal, and I’m sure that whoever created Nicotine Nightmare would say that if just one person was put off smoking by it then it was all worthwhile, but I think that’s very unlikely to have happened. It might have put people off working in a factory, sure – it posits a world where deadly products are allowed to roll around unsupervised and a madman with a grudge could burst in at any moment and destroy your livelihood – but as a smoking cessation tool it’s just like it is as a game: unlikely to leave a lasting impression.



It’s time for a bit of glamour here at VGJunk. Sunny Beverly Hills, high-end plastic surgeons, Playboy models – they all feature in today’s article, an article about an action game that made the bold decision to contain as little action as possible. Brought to the Playstation in 2001 by the Shanghai branch of Ubisoft, it’s the all-expenses spared cheesefest VIP!

You might recognise the lady with the gun as former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson. Or you might not, I don’t know how old you are. Is Pamela Anderson still famous? I’m not sure, I don’t keep up with these things. I get the impression that she’s not famous enough to land a starring role in a television series these days, but back in the heady days of 1998 Pamela Anderson was enough of a draw to get her own starring vehicle in the form of VIP. That’s right, today’s game is a licensed title is based on an America action-comedy show starring Pamela Anderson and a bunch of other people you’ve never heard of. I’d say the odds on this one being a lost classic are fairly low.
Now, I’ve never seen an episode of VIP, so I’ve had to get my information about the show from the internet. This was one of the increasingly rare occasions that looking for said info didn’t immediately send me to a vast and comprehensive wiki on the subject, so this might not be 100% accurate. From what I can tell, VIP is the story of Vallery Irons, portrayed by Anderson in a way that plays up her ditzy blonde image. Vallery accidentally saves a famous person’s life, and is then hired by an agency of bodyguards to the rich and famous to act as the public figurehead of the company as a publicity stunt. Potential clients are lured in by the charms of Vallery Irons Protection – hey, that’s where the name of the show comes from! - while a team of professionals do the actual work. However, despite being a klutz Vallery always manages to save the day herself. She’s basically Inspector Gadget, except only one part of her body has been surgically enhanced. And speaking of plastic surgeons, that’s a good introduction to the game itself. Segue-mobile, away!

This disturbing lump of turn-of-the-century CGI is Dr. Kindle, a plastic surgeon who loves plastic surgery so much he’s crafted his own hair out of plastic. Those aren’t sunglasses, they’re the result of a twisted experiment to give people the eyes of the common housefly. Dr. Kindle has a problem, and it’s not just that he owns the world’s ugliest mobile phone: a small army of hired killers is storming his house. Naturally, there’s only one place that he can turn to for help.

Yes, this looks like a job for the VIP team! Thankfully, the CGI work is much better on Vallery than the good doctor, and I’d say that’s a fair likeness of Pamela Anderson. The face might be right but the voice isn’t, however, and none of the show’s cast performs any voice acting in the game. Instead, Vallery sounds a bit like Malibu Stacy from that episode of The Simpsons where Lisa designs her own talking doll. That won’t stop Vallery Irons, though, and she’s straight over to Dr. Kindle’s mansion to save him.

Okay, here we go. Vallery’s ready for action, and she’s not going to let some bloke in a suit stop her. Combat is joined, but how is this going to work? Like a side-scrolling beat-em-up? Or maybe a God of War type - square for light attack, triangle for heavy attack, that kind of thing?

Ha ha, oh, you poor fool. If that was the case, VIP might have turned out to be mildly interesting, and Ubisoft weren’t about to allow that to happen. You beat up the bad guys, sure, but Vallery’s attacks are performed by inputting the short button sequence that appears in the middle of the screen. That’s right, it’s a rhythm-action game with no rhythm. Imagine Parappa the Rapper without any music or fun or charm. Kick, punch, it’s all in the sequential tapping of buttons.

Enter the sequence correctly, and quickly enough, and Vallery will attack. In this case, she’s bashing the guy with her handbag because, erm, she’s a lady? I have no idea. I know she’s got guns knocking around the VIP office, but she neglected to bring one and instead pummels her way through the villains. I can’t fault her confidence, that’s for sure. Fail the sequence and the enemies will either move closer or attack, but that’s not likely to happen when all you need to press is down and then X.

Have created a small pile of unconscious men with the Louis Vuitton logo forever imprinted onto their skulls, Vallery runs to the next scene. The animators have done an incredible job of capturing the awkward, stilted jog of someone wearing a skin-tight dress and six-inch heels. I don’t think it was intentional. Everyone in the game runs like that.

What’s this? Another, completely different style of gameplay? You’re veering dangerously towards “collection of minigames” territory, VIP. This time it’s a crosshair shooter, and while Vallery sensibly hides behind a gatepost, her team-mate Nikki stands right out in the open and shoots the bad guys from three feet away. This one works pretty much as you’d expect - you put the crosshair over the enemy and press fire. If they don’t fall down, press fire a couple more times. You get different amounts of points depending on where you shoot them. Turning a man’s kneecap into shattered bone soup with a lead garnish is worth only a quarter of the points you get for shooting him in the face, for example. The hitboxes are a little strange, in that any shot where a part of an enemy is inside the green reticule counts as a hit, making the aiming feel loose and overly-generous. Time Crisis it ain’t, but so long as you remember to reload it’s, oh, what’s the word I’m looking for? Functional, that’s it. Let’s not go crazy, though. It definitely doesn’t put the “fun” in “functional.”

Oh good, we’re back to the hand-to-hand combat. Get used to seeing it, because it makes up about seventy-five percent of i’s gameplay. That’s a shame, because it’s extremely tedious. It’s just so slow, that’s the problem. You have to stand around and wait for the enemies to come to you before you can input the buttons. Then, when you have hit the enemies and knocked them to the ground, you have to stand around again and wait for them to stand up and come in for another try. For every second or so that you spend actually inputting the commands, there are at least ten seconds where you’re doing nothing. Ninety percent of the fighting segments are waiting, and tapping out combinations of buttons is most certainly not interesting enough to be worth the wait. Apart from requiring more buttons to be pressed later in the game, nothing about the combat ever changes, either. It’s the same sequences to activate the same canned animations over and over again, against numbers of enemies so over-inflated they don’t so much bog down the game as tie breezeblocks to its ankles and throw it into a swamp. There are some very minor quirks to the fighting system, though. One is that if you do really badly, eventually the game will start offering single-button commands to help you get out of danger. Sometimes commands come right after each other, and if you’re quick enough you can string two attacks together in a vain effort to speed things along. However, if you are quick at inputting the commands you actually get fewer points, because attacking just before the timer runs out nets you a “counter” bonus. Of course, you can’t see the timer, so getting counters amounts to nothing but blind luck.

The stage ends with Nikki threatening the mansion’s door at gunpoint. The door remains tight-lipped, so Nikki kicks it down. That’ll teach it.

The search for Dr. Kindle continues inside, with plenty more of the already-tired fighting “action” to wade through. This time it’s Nikki’s turn to put the tensile strength of her leather trousers to the test. The different characters do have different animations, which I suppose is something. Not something especially good or interesting, but something.

Vallery bravely fights on, despite losing her left arm from the elbow down. She’s a real trouper, this one. She’s clinging onto that handbag with the grim determination of someone who will do absolutely anything to protect her client, apart from swapping her bag for a billyclub or something.

It turns out the doctor was hiding in a cupboard. Judging by his still very unpleasant-to-look-at face, I suspect this is something he does a lot. You know, when the villagers storm his house with pitchforks and burning torches. He looks like a creature given life after being formed from clay, a golem created by an artistically challenged Rabbi who’s only reference picture was of Gordon Ramsey.

Our heroes attempt to flee, but there’s a shocking twist: a Jesuit priest has taken up a sniping position and he has them in his sights!

This leads to an astonishingly dull sequence in which Vallery runs away while Monsignor Assassino takes pot-shots at her. Never for a second imagining that the player might want to have direct control over their character, Ubisoft instead made this a section where you have to tap left or right every now and then so that Vallery can use her incredible precognitive powers to dodge the bullets before they’re fired. It’s so insultingly simple that you’ll have no trouble clearing it unless staring at Dr. Kindle’s face has sent you blind, and the sniper faces a long trip back to the Vatican to inform the Pope of his failure. I think we’ve got real potential for a VIP / The da Vinci Code crossover here. Potential for it to be the worst form of entertainment ever conceived by human minds, I mean.

The VIP team are a target now, and as their headquarters are attacked by the villains, control switches to Tasha as she attempts to sneak away. That’s Tasha in the screenshot above, demonstrating why you should never run on wet linoleum. The “escape” segment consists of the worst “stealth” gameplay I’ve ever had the misfortune to come across, which is saying something considering the amount of times I’ve complained about enforced stealth sections in modern games. It takes the brain-dead simplicity of the “avoid the sniper” scene and marries it to the drawn-out waiting of the fighting sections: stand out of sight until the nearby enemies aren’t looking, then press either left or right when the prompt appears to move to a new hiding spot. It is to Metal Gear Solid as chewing on discarded underwear you found in a roadside puddle is to haute cuisine, and twice as likely to make you ruefully reflect on the life choices you’ve made.

Kay, the team’s computer expert, gets her chance to shine with this minigame. It’s difficult to explain the concept concisely, but here goes: the red line is the pattern you need to match. It scrolls from right to left, and as each segment reaches the left-hand side, you can move your line – the grey one – either up or down in an attempt to get the two lines to match up. Once you’ve got a segment correct, it turns green and locks into place so you can’t accidentally change it on a subsequent pass. That’d be very easy to do, because the amount of time you’re given to manipulate each segment is only a couple of seconds, so there’s some frantic button-tapping when you’re trying to the get bigger spikes into place. Fortunately it loops around a few times so you get more than one shot at each part, and overall it’s not a bad little diversion. It’s hardly the most graphically compelling interface you’ll ever see – it looks like the ECG results of someone in the middle of licking a plug socket - but it’s fast and fairly unique. It beats the hell out of a sliding block puzzle, I’ll tell you that much.

Kay has proven herself to be a valuable asses to the team. She describes herself as “the Shaquille O’Neal of computer hacking.” Yes, I can see the resemblance.

The world’s dictionary-makers may have launched legal proceedings against me to prevent me from using the word “action” to describe VIP’s gameplay, but I will not be intimidated and the action continues as one of the VIP members beats up a tree. This man’s name is Quick. I’ll leave it up to you to ponder how he got that name. It certainly wasn’t for his speed in beating up trees, and this scene that adds absolutely nothing to the game manages to make minutes feel like months. For her part, Vallery stands transfixed in the background, horrified by the meaningless arboreal abuse she’s witnessing. It makes sense to me: judging by Vallery’s wooden pose, she’s part tree herself.

Quick moves on from hassling defenceless trees to shooting thugs. He has a rapid-firing assault rifle rather than a pistol, but that doesn’t make much difference to the gameplay. What did make a difference was that I figured out the quirks of the reloading system. You fire bullets, and when you run out you press circle to reload, right? The thing is, “reloading” in this game magically makes more bullets appear in your gun’s magazine. There’s no reloading animation, no vulnerable moment while you slap in a fresh clip – press reload and your gun’s reloaded. It’s an efficient system, that’s for damn sure. This means that you can fire and reload at the same time, so if you press circle and X together you’ll never run out of bullets, meaning you can spray lead around with wild abandon. You have to hear the reloading sound effect repeatedly, sure, but it might make you feel nostalgic because I’m fairly certain it’s the same sound effect that plays when you collect a weapon in Goldeneye. But what about my accuracy statistic, I hear you cry? Well, yes, there is an accuracy stat on the between-stage results screen. However, the accuracy stat - get this - has no relationship to the shooting stages. I assume it only measures the accuracy of your button presses during the fighting scenes, so if you want to take a novel approach to gunfights and defeat you foes by putting so many bullets into the air that they end up breathing them in and choking on the bloody things, go right ahead. VIP’s not going to penalise you for it.

At some point, a little more plot is revealed. Dr. Kindle tells the team that he did some facelift work for the Mafia, and now they’re coming to kill him. Why? Supposedly the doctor worked on the mob boss’ nephew. The mob boss says the doctor is blackmailing his nephew, while the doctor says all he did was send his patient the bill. It’s difficult to know who to believe. On the one hand you’ve got the Mafia, not know for being the most honest and upstanding members of society. On the other hand, did you see Dr. Kindle’s face? He looks like the title character from an Eighties comedy where a caveman somehow travels to the modern day and takes the medical community by storm. And he never takes his sunglasses off, you can’t trust someone like that. The thing is, this is never resolved in-game. The mob sends more gangsters than you’d find in a complete box set of The Sopranos to kill this guy, but you never find out who’s telling the truth. Vallery Irons is a strong believer in the “kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out” school of thinking.
Oh, by the way, the head of this crime family is called Don Macabre. He had better be a god-damned vampire gangster. C’mon, VIP, you’re 99% of the way to being completely bananas, you might as well go for the gold.

There are a few fight scenes that take place on a beach, the terrified holidaymakers presumably fleeing as Vallery and her friends do their best to fill every hospital in a thousand-mile radius. Having beaten one of the tougher thugs, Quick exclaims that he should go back to his boss and “tell him how that floor tastes.” Okay, Quick – if that is your real name – a couple of things. One, who refers to a sandy beach as “the floor”? The ground, maybe, but the floor? That’s just weird. The other thing this guy can taste is a mixture of sand, blood and his own broken teeth, so give him a break and lay off the trash talk, okay?

The gang then learn that the Macabre mob family are dealing in stolen microchips – a revelation that inspires one of the cast to say it’s “time to download some hurt,” and they don’t mean a torrent of Johnny Cash covers. Honestly, I’m not sure what they mean. An email with a Word document full of insulting phrases attached, maybe. Anyway, they head to a computer trade fair to put a stop to the Mafia’s plans, the upshot of which is that Tasha ends up in a boss battle with the sniper priest. Like all highly-trained snipers, the priest stands in plain sight, at a distance from which throwing house bricks would be just as effective as using a high-calibre rifle. He pops out every now and then, and you have to shoot him before he shoots you. Thankfully, his oversized hat means you can always see where he’d hiding. Not exactly a tense shoot-out, then. Shooting him when he pops up feels more like training a cat to stop scratching the furniture by shooting it with a water pistol than anything else.
Once you’ve shot the priest enough times, he runs away. I was half expecting him to drink a glass of water and have it spray out of the holes in his body like a Tom and Jerry cartoon, but no, he just leaves. Good job he wore his bullet-proof cassock, I guess. Anyway, with him out of the way, the VIP team can access Macabre’s computer files – so long as they can break the encryption. So, what high-tech cybersecurity measures must Kay bypass to get the valuable intel?

Sliding block puzzles. Not one, not two, but three sliding block puzzles. This is why you don’t put Fisher-Price in charge of your computer security. Ever the hallmark of laziness in game design, the sliding block puzzle is a perfect fit for VIP, a game that never makes even the slightest effort to be fun to play. The only saving grace is that because they’re pictures of faces, sometimes the pieces will align in a manner that creates a portrait of a weird, potato-faced alien.

So, what else happens in this game? Well, how about a scene where you tap X as fast as possible so that Vallery can hold a door closed. That exciting enough for ya? No? What if I told you that Vallery can hold the door closed with such raw force that the three grown men on the other side are sent flying backwards, even though the door doesn’t actually move? Good work, Hodor.

Another segment sees Vallery fending off a group of gun-toting mafiosi by hurling bottles of booze at them. I know your eyes are inevitably being drawn to the chairs in the foreground, with their avant-garde design and the faces of what look like serial killers from the Seventies printed on the upholstery, but ignore those and instead focus on the gumption of a woman who fights fire with a half-full bottle of Disaronno and wins.
I might have joked about Vallery beating people up with her handbag earlier, but honestly it’s nice to see Vallery (and the other female members of the VIP team) getting things done for themselves. They all perform plenty of brutal beatings and gun crime, that’s for sure. There’s a section where Vallery is abducted, but rather than waiting for a rescue she escapes on her own and pummels dozens of people in the process. VIP even passes the Bechdel test. I’m not saying it’s a feminist masterpiece or anything, but still, I expected worse from a game that lets you use the points you earn to unlock photos of Anderson in her lingerie.

That’s right, there’s a photo mode – after each stage some new shots are unlocked and you can purchase them with points. Some of them are photos of the real actors, so if you want a blurry, low-res picture of Pamela Anderson and you’re not willing to travel back in time to an internet newsgroup from 1998, this is your chance. Some of the pictures are stills from the game’s cutscenes, just in case you can’t get enough of the incredible graphics. Even better, some of the early photos are from cutscenes that play much later in the game, so you can spoil VIP’s plot for yourself if you like.

Here’s a screenshot that really sums up the experience of playing VIP: grindingly dull button-tapping combat between two ugly polygonal models against a muddy, boring, pre-rendered backdrop that could double as the car park in one of the more psychologically subtle version of Hell.

The gang decide to go after Don Macabre himself and put a stop to his criminal enterprises once and for all. Quite why they feel the need to bring down the mob all on their own is never discussed. I suppose now that they’ve battered or gunned down hundreds of the Don’s men, they figure they might as well finish the job. This is Don Macabre himself, by the way. He is not a vampire. Look, I’m as disappointed as you are.

Having chased the Don to his private heliport, Nikki has to blow through the doors using C4. The C4 is planted by, you guessed it, performing a sequence of button presses. These sequences are such an integral part of the game that it’s a shame VIP didn’t manage to make them work with 100% accuracy, and sometimes the game will tell you you’ve pressed the wrong button even though you definitely haven’t. I played a lot of Just Cause 2, and that game has some much longer and more involved button-pressing sequences. I don’t think I’ve ever made a mistake performing them in Just Cause 2, but VIP was semi-regularly telling me that I wasn’t doing it right. Normally I’m happy to admit that I might just be bad at something, but in this case I’m convinced the game has to take the blame.

During the final confrontation, Vallery is held at gunpoint by the Don. With a level of sheer appropriateness that borders on ironic genius, you beat the final boss by tapping X as fast as you can. That’s it, that’s the final boss battle. You don’t even have to hit the button that quickly. It’s kind of perfect: what other way could a game so utterly devoid of imagination end?

Once you’ve tapped enough to fill the bar, Vallery’s berserker rage kicks in. Ignoring the gun pointed at her head, she spins around – all of this with no input from the player, mind you – and beats the everloving shit out of Don Macabre. Like, absolutely batters him. There’s no way that she hasn’t beaten him to death with her bare hands. The Don is dead, his internal organs rapidly becoming external, and the VIP team have saved the day.

Vallery’s post-murder quip? She says “trick or treat that.” No, I don’t have a goddamn clue, either. Unless he really was a vampire and this game takes place on Halloween. She says it with a look of genuine psychopathy on her face and her hands on her hips. Everyone’s got their hands on their hips, except Tasha. Always a rebel, that one.

The game ends with a brief cutscene that’s nothing more than a joke about breast implants and then boom, VIP is over and we can all return to our loved ones, haggard and raw from the experience. Okay, so maybe it’s not quite that bad. It’s a terrible game, sure, but at least it’s insane enough to be worth a laugh or two. The real problem with VIP (aside from the inclusion of sliding block puzzles) is that it commits the worst sin any videogame can – it’s boring. Really, really boring, outside of the cutscenes. What a shocker to learn that QTEs: The Videogame is boring, right? There’s just such an embarrassing lack of effort in every aspect of the game, and if the developers couldn’t be bothered to make it interesting, then why should I bother playing it? Exactly. But I did, and I hope you enjoyed reading about it. Writing this article is what I think they mean when they tell you to turn lemons into lemonade, although in this case the lemons were emitting a soporific chemical that threatened to put me in a coma while I was squeezing them. Watch the cutscenes on YouTube if you enjoy sub-B-movie action and nonsensical trash-talk, otherwise pretend this game doesn't exist.



So, “gaiden” means “side-story,” right? Well, here’s a Ninja Gaiden game that actually feels like a side-story and not the main event: it’s Tecmo and Natsume’s 1991 Game Boy ninpo-em-up Ninja Gaiden Shadow! It was released as Shadow Warrior in Europe and Ninja Ryukenden GB in Japan, if you feel like you’ve played it before but don’t recognise the name. It was also apparently renamed “Ninja’s Skyscraper Fight” for the Asian market. It does include a skyscraper, and that definitely wants you dead.

Here’s the title screen. It’s certainly a title screen. A screen with a title on it. That title is Ninja Gaiden Shadow, the title of this game. Bonus points for being concise, Tecmo.

Set three years before the events of the NES Ninja Gaiden, NGS begins in traditional Ninja Gaiden style with a cinematic cut-scene, or at least as cinematic as the Game Boy can handle. A villainous force has risen in New York, and I don’t mean Vigo the Carpathian: It’s Garuda, a dark overlord with the kind of incredibly vague but definitely evil plan you often get with videogame antagonists. He tells us “my power is the fear of mankind,” whatever that means. Maybe his muscles get bigger every time he jumps out in front of someone and shouts “boo!”

There’s despair in the skyscraper. Full of people in tedious cubicle farm jobs, is it?

A man appears from the darkness. Well, he is a ninja. That’s how ninjas are supposed to work.

That makes sense. This is a Ninja Gaiden game, after all. I wasn’t expecting Bob Ross, put it that way. So here he is, Ryu Hayabusa, one of gaming’s most famous ninjas – which is odd, because after the NES Ninja Gaiden games he disappeared for a while before returning on the Xbox in 2004. I guess Ryu is just so cool that people couldn’t forget him. I know I can’t – childhood years spent being unable to beat the NES Ninja Gaiden have seen to that - which is why I always play as him in Warriors Orochi 3. That, and you can replace his sword with a baseball bat.

The action begins with Ryu outside the despair-filled skyscraper, fighting his way through legions of American football players who can command these mounted rocket turrets to discharge their deadly payload at Ryu. That’s what the enemies look like they’re doing, anyway, as they perform their little hand motions. That said, the turrets are happy to fire at Ryu without any input from their comrades, so maybe the footballer players are just making the hand signals for whatever gridiron play they want to do next. That’s a thing that happens in American football, right?

As I saw this scene, with Ryu caught between the moon and New York City, I immediately thought of the song “The Best That You Can Do” by Christopher Cross. You know, the theme from the movie Arthur. Except the weird thing is that I did know – I remembered most of the lyrics and everything – and that’s strange because I’m sure I’ve only heard that song in passing a handful of times and I’ve never seen the movie it comes from. The other day I forgot the area code for my phone number, but this sing is wedged firmly in the old memory banks. How do these things happen? Has someone been piping soft-rock movie themes into my room while I sleep? Here’s my review of “The Best That You Can Do:” super cheesy, rocking saxophone solo, I kind of love it. Obviously I had to listen to it on YouTube to make sure I had remembered the lyrics right, but I left YouTube open, forgetting that it automatically moves on to the next video. I came back an hour later to find all my recommended videos are now tracks by Foreigner and Phil Collins. These are the sacrifices I make to run VGJunk.

Ryu moves into the under-construction parts of the skyscraper – nobody having any windows in their office is probably contributing to all the despair – and hangs from a beam while he waits for that bad guy to make his move. You’ll be hanging from beams a lot in this game. The gameplay is extremely similar to the NES Ninja Gaiden games, with a lot of running around and slashing with the short-range horizontal attacks of your sword. However, things have been scaled back for this Game Boy iteration, and the most obvious casualty is Ryu’s ability to cling to walls. Yes, sadly Ryu can’t hang from or climb up vertical surfaces in this game. No wall-jumping here, then, but the ability to hang from beams – and the gameplay challenges that are based around this mechanic – make up for the loss somewhat. The other thing is that Ryu’s arsenal of ninja magic (his subweapons, basically) have been reduced to just one: the fire wheel, which launches a circle of fire along an upwards diagonal in whichever direction Ryu is facing. The fire wheels are powered by the collectibles you can find by smashing open crystal balls dotted through the stages, and the fire wheels are extremely useful (if not mandatory) in the later stages, so make sure you grab as many as Ryu can fit into his ninja backpack. No, you can’t see Ryu’s ninja backpack. Of course you can't, it’s a ninja backpack.

It doesn’t take long to reach the first boss, a mechanical menace that crawls around on the floor as though it’s searching for a lost contact lens. That’s why Ryu’s on tiptoes in the screenshot above, he doesn’t want to tread on it.

The boss can also scuttle around on the ceiling. His contact lens is unlikely to be up there. I tried to encourage him back to Earth with a couple of fire wheels, but the boss would not be hurried. He’ll fall back down in his own time. In fact, that’s all he’ll do, and the boss’ only attack is to try and fall on Ryu’s head. It sounds kinda lame, and admittedly it doesn’t make for the most exciting boss battle ever, but when you weigh half a ton gravity becomes a perfectly acceptable murder weapon. Still, as long as Ryu keeps moving and gets his hits in when the opportunity arises, you should have no trouble beating the boss.

Your reward for doing so is a brief scene showing Ryu slicing the boss into strips (Nanto Suicho Ken style, for the three of you that might get that reference.) It’s a fun interlude because a) you get to see Ryu being a badass, something that doesn’t always come across in the gameplay and b) you get a more detailed look at the boss you just fought. I mean, you don’t in this instance because I chose the “please help I fell in a very large paper shredder” screenshot, but you get the idea.

I would be filled with despair if I lived in a skyscraper built from gravel, yes. I’m beginning to suspect this isn’t a high-rise at all. Where the stages in the NES Ninja Gaidens (especially the first one) were mostly horizontal, Ninja Gaiden Shadow has a lot more vertically-oriented sections. The result of this is that it almost feels like a Mega Man game in terms of level design. The developers have done an excellent job of cramming the NES game’s action into the Game Boy, and while there are some concessions – Ryu moves a little slower and there’s the aforementioned lack of some of his ninja skills – this feel one hundred percent like a “real” Ninja Gaiden game.

Part of the reason for this is that the game was actually scaled down for the smaller screen rather than simply forcing NES-sized sprites into a system that couldn’t really handle them. You can see by the comparison above that Game Boy Ryu is a few pixels smaller than NES Ryu while still looking very much like Ryu Hayabusa, meaning he’s got more room to move around the screen. I probably wouldn’t have noticed this had I not been watching the excellent Game Boy World series of videos, which you should absolutely watch if you want to hear someone who knows what they’re talking about discuss Game Boy games.

Ryu has one final and very important tool at his disposal – a grappling hook. It can only be fired straight upwards and will only connect to ceilings and platforms that Ryu can hang from, so there’s no Bionic Commando-style swinging antics, but it’s incorporated nicely into a few puzzle-ish sections. It’s not as fun as being able to climb on walls, but I’ll take it.

The grappling hook sometimes allows you to reach places you might not otherwise be able to explore. Usually there are power-ups in these hard-to-reach spots, but in this instance I appear to have found a Ryu Hayabusa commemorative plate. Each Ryu Hayabusa commemorative plate comes complete with 9-carat gold trim and a hand-calligraphed message on the reverse that captures the famous moment when Ryu wondered with whom his father had a duel and lost. Available now for only $99.95, stocks are limited!

There’s a new enemy type in stage two: these large chaps with shields. If they’ve got their shield up, there’s very little you can do to hurt them, and at first I had some trouble getting past them. Getting past them without just running through them and losing some health, I mean. The trick is to turn your back on them, at which point they drop their shields and walk towards you as though they think Ryu has simply gone into a sulk and they want to to reconcile with him. Then you can quickly turn around and stab them while they’re not defending themselves. That’s the real ninja magic right there.

Here are the bosses of stage two, a large man and a much smaller man joining forces to create a boss fight with echoes of the Frankenstein battle from the original Castlevania. Big Man tries to shoulder-barge Ryu, while Small Man cartwheels around the room in a desperate attempt to receive the attention he was denied as a child. Not an especially memorable fight, this one, and the key to success is staying out of the bosses’ way and not being too greedy when you get the chance to land a few hits.

Given the original Ninja Gaiden’s reputation for brutal difficulty, I was surprised by how easily I sailed through the first two stages… but then I remembered the NES version doesn’t really get going until stage three, and the same is true of Ninja Gaiden Shadow. It’s difficult in a slightly different way – the lesser focus on jumping over bottomless pits meant far fewer deaths caused by being knocked into said pits by belligerent birds – but here’s where NGS starts ramping up the difficulty. Rotating jets of fire demand accurate movement, and the enemies are more densely packed and fiendishly placed. The saving grace is that there’s no time limit, so you can calmly survey the scene and plan your route before charging into the fray. This is also a very short game, and while there are no passwords the stages are small enough that once you’ve mastered them you can blast through them in no time.

Yes, it’s definitely easier than the NES games. I know this because not once did I fall down a hole during this stage, despite not being able to cling onto walls. NGS is very forgiving when it comes to horizontal jumps, to the point that sometimes you’ll swear you’ve cocked up your jump and are about to experience five hundred acupuncture sessions all at once, only to somehow pop onto the platform you were aiming for.

As the spiked ceiling comes crashing down, I regret making Ryu stop to pick up another Ryu Hayabusa commemorative plate. I don’t know what I was thinking. What am I going to do with two Ryu Hayabusa commemorative plates? That’s just an extra thing to hide when people whose opinions I care about come to my house.

This stage’s boss is a man with a gun. A very heavy gun, apparently: he can’t lift it any higher than a thirty degree angle, which means he spends the entire fight shooting the floor a few feet in front of him. If he’d invested in a tripod then this boss fight would have ended up looking Murphy’s death scene in RoboCop, but as it stands Ryu simply has to keep his distance. That’s where the problems start, because Ryu’s fabled Dragon Sword is not all that long, and it’s difficult to get close to the boss while he’s spraying bullets all over his feet like a drunk at a urinal. Once again it’s a matter of patience – a vital ninja skill – as you wait for a break in his attacks. That, or you can try to get behind him and stab him in the back. That’s also a vital ninja skill.

Stage four’s most fearsome foes are these ceiling-dwelling ninjas who can put out a prodigious amount of shurikens. For some reason, Ryu cannot deflect these shurikens with his sword. What kind of a ninja can’t deflect shurikens with their sword!? Yet another example of supposedly mighty  videogame ninjas not actually being very good at ninjitsu. Would it have killed Ryu to lean a move where he stabs downwards while jumping, for instance? I could have gotten a lot of mileage out of that.

Halfway through the stage there’s a fun section where the lights intermittently turn on and off. Makes sense to me, evil overlords probably don’t have “get a full check of the electrical system” at the top of their list when they’re building an evil skyscraper. The gimmick of the dark sections is that occasionally a honking great laser beam will appear, but the laser beam can’t pass through platforms. Thus, Ryu must remember where the platforms are during the brief illuminated sections and then use them as cover when things go dark. It’s a well-implemented section, to the point that I was disappointed it didn’t last longer

Not quite as much fun, owing to me not performing well under pressure as much in videogames as in real life, was this area where Ryu must climb up through a cavern while being pursued by a rising  tide of lava. Please understand that limitations of the Game Boy’s graphics means that in this case “lava” is simply a placeholder and the deadly liquid could equally be scalding hot chocolate or untreated sewage. Whatever it is, here you can see Ryu about to engulfed by it thanks to me having trouble grappling up the ledges quickly enough. This is not a fault of the game, by the way, just me.

Hang on, this game isn’t taking place in a skyscraper at all! Not unless it’s one of those floating naval skyscrapers, because that’s definitely a ship moored in the background. I feel like I’ve been lied to. Yes, okay, this explains the rising “lava” and walls made of rocks, but still. The title “Ninja’s Skyscraper Fight” is looking pretty embarrassing now, guys.
Oh right, the boss. It’s a flying man with wontons for legs. I think he’s supposed to be an ancient nobleman of some kind, although there’s nothing noble about hanging around the dockyards and throwing things at passers-by. All of the bosses in NGS are heavily pattern-based, but this one in particular feels very constrained by the tactics he’s chosen. Move to the far side of the screen to avoid his shurikens, moving to the other side when he floats above you. When he lands, duck under the fan the throws, stab him a few times and then jump over the returning fan. If you can get this pattern down, you’ll be able to beat him without taking any damage. Naturally I got a bit over-exuberant and ran face-first into his throwin’ fan a couple of times, but that’s why I’m not a ninja.

The fifth and final stage now, where the difficulty is ramped up to maximum and NGS takes its first step over the line from “challenging” to “annoying” with these perpetual flamethrowers. They just keep burning and burning, the evil overlord apparently having hooked them directly to a Russian gas pipeline. Normally the advice to fight fire with fire is not to be taken literally – the other fire will beat you with experience – but in this case it’s a totally valid strategy and Ryu’s fire wheel special will get the job done. I hope you’ve collected plenty of them, because by god you’ll need them.

Flamethrowers aside it’s a fun stage, with plenty of challenge and lots of accurate, well-timed movements and attacks required to progress. This is true of Ninja Gaiden Shadow as a whole, and while it’s not quite up to the standards of its NES forebears, Tecmo and Natsume have done just about the best possible job in getting Ninja Gaiden onto the Game Boy mostly intact. It’s a system where action games can suffer, but not in this instance.

At the end of the stage waits Garuda himself, another flying villain with a propensity for airborne attacks. In this case it’s lightning, for the full “evil emperor” experience. Again, he seems to have trouble getting his death-ray right into the corner of the screen, so use that to your advantage. I mock, but the lighting effect looks neat and somehow the Game Boy’s sound chip manages to make it sound dangerous. As always in these situations, for no obvious reason the boss will fly down to street level so you can hit him. He’s simply feeling generous, I suppose.

Okay, now I get it: he just wanted me to do him enough damage so he could transform into a Gundam. A cunning plan to be sure: Ryu was definitely doing better against the lightning. Garuda V. 2 only has one attack, and it’s as rigid a pattern as all the other bosses, but it’s a real pain in the arse to avoid. He spawns three projectiles that hover around for a few seconds before flying towards Ryu. They always come at you in the order middle, bottom, top, so dodging them is as simple as ducking the first and then jumping over the low one but under the high one. It’s simple in theory, anyway, but in practise you’ve got a very narrow window to avoid the attack, plus Garudabot 5000 is zipping around the screen and getting in your way. A tough final boss was always to be expected in a Ninja Gaiden game, though, so it doesn’t feel unduly punishing (and at least it’s easy to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing.)

I got there in the end, though. It turns out Garuda’s biggest weakness was swords. Who knew! The artist here as done a very good job of capturing the surprised expression of a wizard who transformed into a robot, only to be defeated by a man with a bit of sharpened metal.

Skyscraper my arse, that’s clearly one of Bowser’s castles.
As Ryu strides into the sunset (the castle crumbling behind him as they always do, because villains use their own soul for the foundations) I’m left to reflect on what is really a miniature triumph. Ninja Gaiden Shadow might not be the best in the series – partly because it’s a really good series – but it’s one of the best all-out action games on the Game Boy. The developers took the limitations of the hardware into consideration and produced something that might run a little more slowly and be lacking some ninja techniques but which absolutely deserves to be part of the series. It's well-presented, too, with mini cutscenes, crisp, easily readable graphics and an excellent soundtrack. Like Danny DeVito swimming through treacle, it’s short but sweet, and I’d give it my top ninja recommendation of five shurikens out of five. No, wait four and a half shurikens. It loses half a point because Ryu can’t knock shurikens out of the air with his sword. He must have been pulling a sickie when they covered that at Ninja Tech.

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