Video Games

If there’s one thing I’m ashamed of as a gamer, it’s that I didn’t jump on the indie bandwagon sooner. As you can probably guess, I’m a pretty materialistic guy, so it goes without saying that I like to own physical copies of games. For essentially that one reason, I avoided most indie titles for way too long. Sure, I played the odd game here and there, but my attitude was always: “my backlog of physical games is long enough as it is, why bother with digital releases”? Perhaps my other hesitation was that for the longest time, I associated the term indie with art games, which I was fairly certain were shallow and devoid of meaty game content. Anyways, a few months ago I finally upgraded my PC, meaning I can now catch up on the literal mountains of excellent games offered on platforms like Steam and GOG. As I explore this world, I realize that I was beyond wrong about indie gaming.  Without the restraints of focus testing, enormous budgets, and arbitrary interests from money obsessed publishers, independent developers are free to innovate in ways that you rarely see with large releases. Of course, finding gems usually means traversing an enormous sea of mediocrity, but user reviews are fairly good at steering you in the right direction. Luckily for fans of Xenomorphosis, the number of sci-fi themed indie games are near infinite. One of these games, Capsized, is a great introduction to this world.

Capsized Cover

Capsized’s illustrations fit the in-game graphics perfectly.

Developer: Alientrap Games
Publishers: Alientrap Games (self-published), indiePub Entertainment, Inc. (iOS version)
Platforms: Steam, iOS (called Capsized+), XBLA
Release Dates: 2011 (Steam), 2013 (iOS), 2013 (XBLA)

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Detailed environments like those in Capsized add such great atmospheric value.

Capsized was initially released for Steam in 2011, and was developed by Alientrap Games: a studio known for a sci-fi FPS called Nexuiz that was built on modified Quake engine tech. Initially developed by Alientrap’s Lee Vermeluen and Jesse McGibney as a university project, they later devoted their full efforts to the game after graduation. Lee’s role was as programmer, and Jesse’s was as artist. Although this was their first major commercial release, and they claim they had to learn a lot along the way, their inexperience is never noticeable when playing the game. Had you told me this was developed by a couple of ex-Valve employees wanting to experiment on their own, I’d have believed you.

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Levels like this one have extremely floaty gravities, giving you an even more empowering sense of speed than usual.

Storytelling in Capsized is all told through short comic strips. Essentially, you play as a spacefarer who has crash landed on a hostile alien planet. You’ve been separated from your crew, so you must find them before you can rebuild your ship. Lee and Jesse felt strongly that there should be as little text as possible, so you’re mostly forced to learn the game’s mechanics on your own. I appreciated the freedom from tedious explanations, because at its core Capsized is a very arcadey game, and text would just serve to slow down the game experience. The developers are big fans of fast-paced FPS’, so they wanted to channel as much of that kinetic gameplay as possible.

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The rocket in this image is being deflected by an object that you must destroy to beat the level.

I stumbled on Capsized when I saw a news story mentioning its imminent release on iOS. Captivated by its beautiful art style, I immediately searched for more details. After seeing that the game was described as an exploration-based sci-fi action platformer, visions of Metroid sprang to mind, and I bought Capsized almost immediately. Metroid is my favorite series of all time, so this was a no-brainer. Having now beaten the game, I now realize that Capsized bears a much more acute resemblance to a certain infamous European series. Whether the developers intended it or not (I doubt they did judging from interviews), Capsized feels very similar to the Turrican games. The game is split into separate missions, but each one feels like it starts where the last one ended, geographically speaking.

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The night levels require you to use a flashlight.

Gameplay in Capsized is part exploration, but there’s never a dull moment. Enemies attack from all directions, sometimes in screen filling numbers. Throughout these levels you’re encouraged to explore every nook and cranny, because doing so will net you additional lives, shields, powerups, weapons, and secret collectibles. Each level has a different objective: some require you to defeat certain enemies, collect unique items, or simply traverse to an exit location. Because of the objective-based gameplay, the goals within Capsized‘s levels can usually be beaten in any order you choose. Generally, this means clearing every enemy from the screen to make the end-goal easily achievable, but there’s nothing stopping you from blazing straight from objective to objective and avoiding the majority of enemies. Bonuses and weapons don’t follow you from level to level, so there’s no disadvantage to expending all your firepower in each level. I’m one of those gamers who nervously saves all his good weapons until the end-game, so it’s a nice change of pace to not feel guilty about going Full Rambo at every possible opportunity.

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Some of the chaos that makes Capsized so much fun.

Capsized has a healthy assortment of weapons to choose from. Other than the default rifle, there’s a rapid-fire gun, a missile launcher, a homing shot, a laser shot, a flamethrower, a grenade launcher, and a black hole generator. Ammo is plentiful, but should you run out, the default gun is still pretty useful. Some weapons also have an alternate firing mode, and the default gun even has a charge shot. To be honest, the regular firing modes were adequate enough that I never felt the need to rely on the alternates. In addition to the weapons, Capzised has an excellent grappling hook that can be used all times. This might actually be the best example of a grappling hook in a sidescroller that I’ve ever experienced. Before long, you’ll find yourself whipping around levels at lightning speeds, that is, until you fling yourself into a swarm of enemies. The grappling hook also serves as a sort of gravity gun, letting you pick up and fling objects at will. Should you need even more manoeuvring power, you have access to a jet pack with a finite supply of fuel. In some levels, fuel recharges infinitely when you’re touching the ground, in others, you must collect hidden fuel canisters. Strangely enough, there’s never an indication of whether a level has a finite or infinite fuel supply. I often found out about the infinite supply at the end of a level, which speaks to the usefulness of the grappling hook.

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While capturing these screens, I noticed that the game adds a slight blur effect to your surroundings while you’re moving. This made it difficult to take dynamic shots that don’t look low resolution.

On paper, Capsized sounds like an oldschool platformer, but thanks to a realistic physics engine, it plays quite differently. Like in many modern indie sidescrollers, objects roll or bounce across the environment realistically when disturbed, so there are no canned animations. The benefit of this is that no two playthroughs feel the same, the downside is that platforming obstacles aren’t as meticulously planned as in older classics, and objects sometimes obstruct your path in annoying ways. You’ll often find yourself at odds with a corridor that’s obstructed by a misplaced object. On one playthrough, there was an object that I needed to complete a level, but it had managed to wedge itself into a wall. Consequently, I had to restart the level because the object was irretrievable.

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The jet pack and grappling hook can both be used at the same time.

Other than the rare occurrence of objects getting sucked into walls, Capsized‘s difficulty is challenging, but reasonable. There are three difficulty levels: Easy, Normal (the default), and Hard. The controls will be instantly to familiar to people who’ve played their fair share of modern sidescrollers on PC. The WASD keys move your character, and the mouse controls the direction of your gun. Once you master these controls. the game becomes really fun. As long as you chip away at the enemies without pulling too many at once, chances are you won’t be presented with the Game Over screen, at least until you reach the final boss level, which is pretty difficult. Once you’ve beaten the game, there’s a rewarding ranking system that encourages you to replay each level. After each level, you’re given a rank out of 10 based on your completion time, secret items gathered, lives remaining, and difficulty level chosen. Should you finish a level really quickly with few to no deaths, you’ll get a high rank; there’s no need to kill any more enemies than absolutely necessary. In addition to the ranking system, Capsized offers replay value in the form of an Arcade option. In the arcade, you can choose between several game modes: a team death match against bots, a time trial where you collect oxygen canisters to stay alive, a horde-type survival mode, a mode in which you must survive with no weapons, and a deathmatch mode against human opponents. I still haven’t had a chance to try every one of these modes, but from what I’ve experienced, they’re both fun, and really challenging.

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Capsized’s soundtrack, which I haven’t given its proper due, has a subdued ethereal quality that suits the game’s atmosphere perfectly.

As I mentioned earlier, the first thing that will likely draw most people’s attention are the beautiful visuals. The backgrounds have a detailed, hand drawn quality. Most levels feature a lush jungle setting rife with colorful flora and even harmless fauna. Although there isn’t much variation to the environments, you’ll fight at every time of day, so the lighting and colors change from level to level. In my opinion, rich environments are integral to exploration-based games, and in this area Capsized delivers the goods spectacularly. As I mentioned earlier, scattered throughout the environments are hordes of enemies. These consist of flying jellyfish, ferocious animals, and all manner of aggressive tribal natives. For the most part, individual enemies are relatively easy to kill, but put 20 together on one screen and the odds tend to balance in their favor. Their design is nothing you haven’t seen before, but they suit the game world perfectly.

Capsized is a game that I can see myself continuing to return to. The fast-paced action, non-linear levels, rank system, and arcade modes provide for a really fun and rewarding experience. After beating the game once, I re-beat it a month later and enjoyed the experience just as much the second time. The game is relatively short, but the length feels reasonable given the relatively low price point. Also worth mentioning is that in addition to the iOS port, there’s also an XBLA release, so the game is now available to most gamers. Here’s hoping that Capsized eventually gets a much deserved sequel.

Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of Capsized-related images


If I haven’t already stated this clearly enough, I’d like to remind everyone that I love Genesis/Mega Drive shooters. They harken back to a time when environments and atmosphere were an integral part of the shmup experience. As much as I enjoy bullet hell shooters, it’s hard to enjoy their backgrounds when 90% of the screen is filled with bullets, and breaking concentration for a millisecond means imminent death. Had you asked me a few years ago, I would have told you that I prefer vertical to horizontal shooters. Now, I find myself leaning towards the latter. Because horizontal shooters force you to interact with their environments, I find they often create a more compelling atmosphere. The downside to this extra layer of complexity is that the ever-present danger of smashing into walls can get really frustrating. For me, the sweet spot is when a horizontal shooter has non-lethal walls; this gives me the best of both worlds. The Sega-developed Genesis/Mega Drive game Bio-Hazard Battle (called Crying in Japan) is a happy example of this compromise.

Bio-Hazard Battle Cover

Not the best illustration, but it reflects the in-game content nicely.

Bio-Hazard Battle / Crying
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Platforms: Genesis/Mega Drive (Featured), Virtual Console, Steam
Original Release Date: 1992

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A short opening cinematic shows your ship being dropped from outside the planet’s atmosphere.

Developed in 1992, Bio-Hazard Battle is the only Sega-developed horizontal shooter I can think of other than Fantasy Zone. As for why the game is called Crying in its native country, your guess is as good as mine. Typically, Western changes to a game’s branding feel odd and inappropriate, and yet in this case I think the Bio-Hazard Battle name and image make more sense than Crying. Looking at the box art and menu screen for Crying, it looks like a tech-based cyberpunk game, not a post-apocalyptic adventure set in deep space. BHB is often remembered for its visual style, which presents a planet where the natural world is overgrown and menacing. Instead of traversing gigeresque hivescapes (I just made that up), you explore areas that abound in organic life that looks larger and more dangerous than what we have on Earth. To make things even more interesting, the selectable characters are bioships that look similar to the enemies that you battle. BHB’s design and atmosphere exist in their own interesting vacuum, in the sense that I’ve never seen another shooter that looks similar.

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No 16-bit shooter is complete without plenty of flying sperm.

In BHB, humans living on a planet called Avaron were attacked by a hostile alien force during an event called G-Biowar I. The aliens unleashed a retrovirus that exposed humanity to a plethora of hostile lifeforms. The humans were all eradicated, save for a small group that fled to O.P. Odysseus, an orbiting space station. After hundreds of years in stasis, the station’s computer woke the human crew. Probes indicate that certain areas of Avaron can potentially be reclaimed. Piloting a bioship, it’s your job to scout out these locations to see if they’re fit for recolonization. As a nice bonus, BHB’s English manual explains the conditions that the probes have anticipated for each area (level).

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This lush forest from Stage 3 shows off the strange fauna and flora found on Avaron.

I respect that BHB’s story is a departure from the typical: “you’re the last jet fighter left, go get ’em cowboy!” Instead of single-handedly saving the human race, you’re essentially involved in scouting missions. As you’ll soon find out, I love almost everything about BHB, and I think the story does a great job of explaining the environments you encounter. Because the planet has been overrun, you’ll sometimes find relics of civilization. As I explained in my Panzer Dragoon and After Earth reviews, my absolute favorite post-apocalyptic settings are those in which a planet has been so overtaken by vegetation or geological changes that it’s barely recognizable. In this sense, BHB actually shares a lot in common with Panzer Dragoon, at least visually. Given the nature of the virus that transformed BHB’s planet, the freakish organisms that constantly swarm your ship actually make sense. As you can probably guess, the bosses are a real treat to see, and feature oversized, distorted anomalies of nature. The Stage 6 boss is a giant airship that is part organism and part machine; its underside is dominated by a giant set of gills that are easily some of the best looking sprites I’ve seen in a Genesis game. Overall, the spritework is top-notch, as evidenced by the range of locales you explore. The game starts in the upper atmosphere of Avaron, and then proceeds to a ruined city, a forest, a cave, an ocean, an airship, a junkyard, and finally an industrial facility.

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Luckily, walls don’t hurt your ship. Otherwise, this stage would be near impossible.

Accompanying the unique visuals is one of my favorite soundtracks on the Genesis. Anytime I’ve seen the music mentioned, everyone always emphasizes how much bass there is in the mix. There’s this constant tribal droning that accompanies you throughout your journey. It’s really unlike anything I’ve heard in a game, and it both embraces and transcends the limitations of the Genesis’ sound chip. The melodies match the pace of the levels, and are at times uplifting, mystical, and terrifying. I can think of few games whose soundtrack fits their mood so perfectly. In a game that I love on nearly every level, the soundtrack might be the strongest point.

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Frying up some massive kalamari.

BHB gives you a choice between 4 bioships to commandeer: Orestes, Electra, Hecuba, and Polyxena. Aside from their visual differences, each ship has a different set of available shot types that are made available by collecting Energy Seeds. Energy seeds come in 4 colors, and are scattered liberally throughout the stages. By collecting an energy seed, you gain its shot type. Collect three of the same energy seed in a row and that shot type will become fully powered up. Because each of the four ships react differently to the various energy seeds, collecting the red seed as one ship will give you a different shot type than as a different ship. Although your ship always fires a forward-facing rapid shot, the special shots given by the energy seeds fire from an option that orbits your ship. As in many horizontal shooters, the direction of the option can be controlled by moving your ship from side-to-side. As you can imagine, it can be difficult to both dodge attacks and aim your option at the same time. Luckily, two of the energy seeds give you shots that don’t need to be manually aimed. My favorite of the shot types, the red homing laser, is a joy to use and can make certain sections much easier. I typically choose Polyxena for playthroughs because it is one of two ships able to use this attack. In addition to the homing shot are a green rapid fire, a powerful yellow double-helix laser, slow blue homing orbs, and a blue multidirection laser. This powerup system is really well implemented, and as you learn the levels you’ll know which shot type to choose for each situation. Originally, I used to play almost exclusively with the red homing laser, until I realized that other weapons were better suited to certain areas. Another strategy in BHB is that options will defend you from incoming fire, and the blue homing orb shot will absorb enemy bullets. That being said, in practice its easier to rely on your dodging skills than on these difficult manoeuvres. Finally, your ship has a charge shot that can be utilized at all times. This shot passes through enemies, making it essential when you need to clear an area of many enemies at once. Although its easy to assume that the charge shot is the most powerful weapon against bosses, the yellow double-helix laser is actually more deadly and less cumbersome.

I love the detail on this infected airship.

I love the detail on this infected airship.

In terms of difficulty, BHB is a mixed bag. On the one hand, I was able to finish it on Easy with starting lives turned to max after a few hours, but of course the game becomes much trickier on Normal with default lives. After about a week of play, I can almost 1CC the game, but it’s definitely not an easy accomplishment. From the menu screen, you can choose between Easy, Normal, and Hard, and anywhere from 3 to 5 starting lives (3 being the default). The game becomes noticeably harder on higher difficulties, primarily because enemy bullets move faster, and certain bosses have slightly more challenging patterns.  Thankfully, the game starts you off with 10 credits, which is pretty generous. Dying and losing your maxed out shots doesn’t hurt your groove too badly, so its easy to just keep spending credits on each new level until you master the enemy patterns. Additionally, extends are doled out at every 20 000 points, which amounts to about twice per level. If that wasn’t generous enough already, Levels 2 through 8 each have a secret 1UP location that require you to shoot an invisible location to render them visible. They’re relatively easy to find, so you’ll probably know most of their locations after a few plays.

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One of BHB’s stranger bosses. I think it just burst from its cocoon.

BHB’s pacing starts out really easy, and then ramps up in difficulty with each level. The first level is essentially a short tutorial, because you can practically beat it without moving your ship. Personally, I find stages 5 and 8 the most difficult, mostly because they launch battalions of enemies into your ship. There are actually quite a few bullets to dodge in BHB, but the real challenge usually comes from avoiding collisions with enemies that swoop in waves. Most of BHB’s memorization involves knowing when to avoid these incoming enemies, which hassle you even during boss fights. As a result, boss fights can be milked, but I can’t imagine you’d last long without inadvertently killing the boss. Because I doubt you can milk bosses for very long, BHB’s scoring consists of shooting down as many enemies as possible throughout the stages. Energy seeds don’t give you points, and there are no bonus tokens or multipliers.

If there’s one point I’d like to stress about BHB, it’s that it’s really fun to play. I’ve tried (and failed) to 1CC it countless times, but I never get bored. Furthermore, the combination of unique visuals, incredible music, and unique powerup system mean that BHB is well-rounded in every way possible. My only gripe is that enemy bullets sometimes blend in too conveniently with the backgrounds. Regardless, Bio-Hazard Battle might just be my new favorite Genesis shooter. I would kill to see a sequel!

Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of Hellfire-related images


At risk of betraying my age, the Genesis was the first system I ever owned. Sure, I have early memories of playing the NES at other people’s houses (or my accurately, watching others play), but the genny was all mine. Many of my best gaming memories were from the system’s punishing games and deep bass. Unsurprisingly, when I was older, and started to purchase older games, the Genesis was the first system that I chose to relive. At first glance, the genny was home to countless licensed games, as well as about a billion bargain bin sports games, but dig a little deeper, and you’ll find an endless treasure trove of excellent Japanese titles, most of which were brought to the West thanks to a company called Renovation. Among these niche games, the dominant genre was undoubtedly shooters. When I started collecting games for the system, many of the “top games for the system” lists included plenty of shmups. Thus, I stumbled upon classics like Gaiares, Lightening Force (Thunderforce III in Japan), Fire Shark, and others that I can’t seem to recall at the moment.

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Boss fights in Hellfire range from relatively easy to brutally hard.

Needless to say, my endeavour to relive my Genesis-playing youth played a big part in crystallizing my then-emerging love for shmups. At this point, I now own most of the Western-released shooters for the system. They might not be as pretty as other 16-bit shooters, and there are some people who avoid 16-bit arcade ports altogether, but I can’t seem to get enough of them. This was an era of immense creativity and experimentation, especially as far as visuals were concerned. The environments, enemies, and (especially) bosses in 16-bit shooters are all over the map, and feature the sort of visual risk-taking that you don’t see as often these days. Trains with giant deformed heads attached? Spaceships in the shape of fish? Flying pharaoh head ships? Sure, why not? Many of the Genesis’ shooters came out in the first few years of its life-cycle, and today’s game is no exception. Released in 1990 in Japan, and 1991 in North America, Hellfire was one of several arcade ports for the system from legendary shooter developer Toaplan (who you might remember from my Batsugun review).

Hellfire Cover

Now this is some kickass cover art! Who wouldn’t buy this?

Developer: Toaplan
Publishers: Taito (Arcade), Seismic Software Inc. (Mega Drive), NEC Avenue (PC Engine CD-ROM)
Platforms: Genesis/Mega Drive (Featured), Arcade, PC Engine CD-ROM
Release Dates: 1989 (Arcade), 1991 (Japanese Mega Drive), 1991 (Genesis, European Mega Drive, PC Engine CD-ROM)

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That transport ship looks quite a bit like Halo’s Pelican dropship.

In the year 2998, humanity has reached a period of prosperity, and has successfully colonized numerous planets. Suddenly, an entity known as Black Nebula appears and starts devouring stars until it eventually reaches one of man’s colonies. The Black Nebula is revealed to be a robotic dictator named Super Mech, who intends to eradicate all of humanity with his vast space armada. In the arcade and Genesis versions, the main character is a Space Federation member named Lance, who pilots the only space fighter craft, the CNCS1, against Super Mech’s forces. In the PC Engine version, Lance is replaced with a female protagonist named Kaoru. Generally I love the simplistic, far future settings of space shooters, but Hellfire story is about as far-fetched as they come. Only one space fighter craft left in existence? Seriously!? I get it, the society of the future is past the need for warfare, but keep at least… 3 space ships around for defense! Jeez.

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The various directions of laser fire are color coded, which is really handy in tight situations.

Originally released in arcades in 1989, Hellfire was unique in that it was one of only two horizontal shooters ever developed by Toaplan (the other being the infamous Zero Wing). Toaplan are remembered for blazing new ground with their giant output of vertically scrolling shooters, but horis? Not so much. Most shooter usually have a gimmick, and Hellfire is no exception. In this case, the gimmick is the ability to change between one of 4 shooting directions on the fly. I say the word “gimmick” lovingly, because in the case of Hellfire, it’s implemented extremely well. At any time, you can switch between shooting forward-facing, diagonal, backwards, or vertical lasers. For the most part, this adds a nice layer of depth to the game. My only criticism is that you have to cycle through the shot modes one at a time, meaning that if you need to switch to a diagonal laser in a pinch, you may have to hit the “switch shot mode” button up to to three times. As I’ll explain soon, Hellfire has a brutal level of difficulty, so you’re often forced to know when to switch to a certain shot, even before a certain wave of enemies appears onscreen. Conversely, the various shot modes open up more possiblities than in your average shooter. When watching videos of other people playing the game, their way of clearing a certain area is often different from mine, and involves the use of a different sequence of shot modes. Either way, by the time you master Hellfire, you’ll look like a pro, because you’ll be switching to appropriate directions of fire even before enemies appear onscreen. To the game’s credit, the gimmick is pushed to its limits, meaning that you will be forced to not only embrace it, but master it as well. In my opinion, the sign of a poorly implemented gimmick in a shooter is when you can clear the game without ever needing to rely on it.

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I love the Egyptian motif.

As I alluded to earlier, Hellfire is brutal as f**k. Your character sprite is fairly large, and has an equally large hitbox. Hitting walls will kill you, and as you collect speedups, you’ll be moving so fast that walls present a serious lethality. In the later levels, bosses spew out incredibly fast bullets, which wouldn’t be nearly as difficult to dodge if you didn’t move so freaking far every time you tap the direction pad, and if your hitbox wasn’t so ridiculously huge. Needless to say, one of my important survival strategies is to avoid as many speedups as possible. Two or three is the sweet-spot; any more and you’ll be smashing into all manner of enemies and walls. By far Hellfire‘s most punishing aspect is its continue system, which might be one of the most crushing I’ve ever seen. Dying at anytime in Hellfire means being sent back to a checkpoint, often fairly far back in the level (think R-Type). This will cause you to lose all your powerups, and won’t even replenish your smart bombs, should you have run out. Even worse, dying near the beginning of a checkpoint will send you back to a previous checkpoint! This is the video game equivalent of multiple choice tests where you lose points for getting the wrong answer. Being sent to a checkpoint with zero powerups means you’re pretty much screwed, that is unless you’ve memorized the game to a tee, which is imperative should you wish to finish it. In fact, I would almost recommend practicing levels without powerups, because doing so will ensure that when you do have powerups, the game will feel considerably easier. Luckily, powerups are relatively easy to come by, so starting a level without any doesn’t mean that you’re entirely screwed. Fully powered up, you’ll shoot 3 horizontal lasers, and 2 diagonal lasers. Don’t expect any screen clearing weapons of mass destruction. In terms of other upgrades, you can collect an option that flies around randomly and sometimes damages other ships, as well as a giant laser bomb that passes through every enemy, and clears the screen of enemy bullets.

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Some of the machinery designs, like the one seen in this picture, are really well done.

By the time you’ve mastered Hellfire‘s levels, you’ll be able to (mostly) play through the entire experience without dying, which as you can imagine, feels really rewarding. The one saving grace in Hellfire‘s difficulty is that on the default “Easy mode”, you’re given 20 continues, which is more than you’ll realistically use. Most times, you’ll find yourself putting the game down in frustration well before you’ve blown through all 20 continues. The other available difficulties in Hellfire are Hard (which I really can’t comment on because there’s no way I was going to try it), and “Yea Right”, which is the difficulty setting you unlock when you loop the game. As hard as Hellfire is, it rarely feels overly cheap; most deaths usually feel warranted, with the exception of the ones where you run into walls as a result of the ridiculous speedups. Overall, Hellfire’s challenge is what kept me returning to the game, and you will feel like a pro if you can make it to the last couple stages. One last tip if you plan to stay alive past the first level: in the options menu, turn the fire mode to “rapid”. This is absolutely essentially considering the pathetic pea shooter you start with. Your wrist (and sanity) will thank you.

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Tight corridors are a hassle when every time you click the direction pad you move a full ship length.

Scoring in Hellfire is relatively straightforward. Basically, you get points for shooting down enemies (duh), and collecting bonus points in the form of floating “B” tokens. Once your ship is fully maxed out, powerups will stop dropping, and will be replaced instead by B tokens. As you collect the B tokens, they will progressively give you more points, Eventually, if you collect around 10 without dying, their point value will max out at a huge bonus of 10 000 points per token. As you master the game, and are able to survive long periods of time without dying, you’ll collect enough of these tokens to continue getting extends. In the American Genesis version, the first extend is received at 70 000 points, and progressive extends are given at every 200 000 points. Should you play the game flawlessly, you can finish with around 12 or more lives. Although this sounds generous, remember that dying starts you back at zero, in more ways than one. Therefore, playing for score in Hellfire means not dying, ideally not even once, which is much harder said than done. I’ve played the hell out of Hellfire, and I still can’t beat the game, period. I can get to the last stage on a credit, but past that point it’s just too ridiculously brutal. Should you reach the final boss, his attacks are so fierce that I had a hard time surviving his final attack even with save states…

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Hellfire’s soundtrack is mostly pretty bland and unmemorable.

Hellfire‘s visuals are competent, but far from the best you’ll see on the system. It holds its own compared to other early Genesis titles, but it looks pretty weak compared to later shooters like Thunderforce III and IV, M.U.S.H.A., and Bio Hazard Battle. The colors look too dark, the backgrounds are fairly bland, and there’s a general lack of detail. On the plus side, the graphics are really smooth, and are pretty much entirely devoid of flicker or slowdown. Although the environments are bland, I respect that they’re pretty varied. In particular, the second level’s Egyptian motif is really fun and original. Throughout the course of the game, you’ll explore a space station, an Egyptian-style temple, a pink organic planet, a swamp, another space station, and open space. The enemies are also fairly varied, other than a green mecha type that appears in waves in nearly every level. There are several larger enemy ships, which are nicely designed, and have weapons that animate independently.

Overall, I’d recommend Hellfire to any shooter fans that aren’t afraid of imperfect arcade ports, and any Genesis gamers that are looking for a challenge. The game is tough as nails, but it’s also really fun. If you step up to the challenge, you’ll find yourself spending countless hours on “one last try”. Everything runs really smoothly, and the 4-way firing mechanic is actually really well implemented. If there’s one thing I’d love to accomplish with this blog, its to convince sci-fi fans to give sci-fi themed shooters a chance. For newcomers, this might not be a great introduction to the genre, but considering that you can acquire it on the cheap, you can’t go too far wrong. So far I’ve been really impressed with Toaplan‘s Genesis output, and this is no exception.

Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of Hellfire-related images


As anyone who’s aware of my taste in gaming can attest, I’m a huge shooter/STG/shmup fan. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, shmups (shoot-em-ups) or STGs (shooting games) are the “space shooters” you remember seeing in arcades. Back in the 80’s, shmups were all the rage, so nearly everyone, regardless of how hardcore they are, has at least some experience with them. For the last decade and a half, shooters have become fairly niche, but live on in a fairly strong way thanks to companies like Cave and G.Rev that continue to churn out shmups of the highest caliber. Companies like Cave have wisely embraced iOS, so shmups have gained a certain amount of popularity recently thanks to their accesibility on smart phones and tablets. Meanwhile, shmups, like fighting games, are one of those genres that all video game collectors eventually stumble on. The beauty of them is that they age really well, so they provide many of the best old school gaming experiences. Furthermore, shooter fans are willing to pay top dollar for a really quality game, so shooters often place near the top of the most valuable games on any system. Thus, the increased popularity in video game collecting as of late has led to many new shmup fans.

Batsugun Saturn Toaplan 15

Witness Batsugun’s legendary firepower.

Since this is my first shooter review on this site, I should probably let any any shmup fans know what kind of shooter player I am. I’ve spent the last 6 years lurking the forum, so I know just how important it is for me to show off my penis size before we get down to business. Like many more recent shooter fans, I played the odd shooter as a kid, but I got sucked into the genre in a big way after playing the GameCube release of Icaruga. Since then, I’ve gone on to purchase maybe 100 or so shooters. As far as genres go, they definitely dominate my collection. That being said, I don’t typically go for 1CCs. Other than the odd easier game, I’m just not patient or skilled enough to 1CC most games. Instead, I’ve developed my personal “3-credit rule”. My feeling is that if you limit yourself to 3 credits, you still have to memorize a game, and will definitely get your money’s worth, but you won’t be constantly pulling your teeth out over an end boss that just won’t quit. Also, if I was trying to 1CC each game, I’d have a lot less time for this site! Essentially, I’m fairly knowledgeable about shooters; my Saturn and Xbox 360 are Japanese, but don’t expect me to impress you with any amazing strategies or high scores. Also, my favorite part of shooters are the incredibly detailed, usually pixellated visuals, which don’t require any particular skill to enjoy.

Batsugun Saturn Toaplan Cover Saturn

Gotta love that logo.

Developer: Toaplan, Gazelle (Saturn port)
Publisher: Toaplan (Arcade), Banpresto (Saturn)
Platforms: Saturn (Featured), Arcade
Release Dates: 1993 (Arcade), 1996 (Saturn)

Batsugun Saturn Toaplan 14

One of the game’s challenging boss fights.

Released in arcades in 1993, Batsugun was the final shooter developed by the now defunct Toaplan. For anyone in the know, Toaplan used to create some of the best shooters around. Of particular note to sci-fi fans were Truxton (Tatsujin in Japan), Hellfire, Grindstormer (V・V in Japan), Vimana, and the infamous Zero Wing, which was responsible for the “all your base are belong to us” meme. Along with Konami, Irem, and Technosoft, Toaplan‘s shooters rank near my favorites from the 16/32-bit era. Batsugun could be considered the final swansong to Toaplan‘s line of shooters. It exemplifies everything that was so excellent about their games: fast gameplay, a balanced difficulty progression, badass powerups, a reasonable but fair challenge, really smooth programming, and solid visuals.

Batsugun Saturn Toaplan 18

As all good shooters should be, Batsugun is plenty colorful.

Batsugun is remembered for two reasons: it was arguably the definitive game that inspired the bullet hell/danmaku sub-genre, and it has some of the most gratuitous firepower of any shmup. To address the first point: in my opinion, the regular version of Batsugun doesn’t feel like a bullet hell shooter. Your hitbox is way too big, there aren’t enough bullets onscreen, and almost all the enemy bullets shoot really quickly, and are aimed directly at you (kind of like in a Raiden game). That being said, you can definitely see the framework being established. Compared to other early 90’s shooters, there are hell of lot more bullets being fired by bosses, and your giant firepower means you spend an equal amount of time dodging as firing.

Batsugun Saturn Toaplan 6

This is the only shooter I can think of where you start underwater and then make your way above land.

Speaking of your firepower, Batsugun has a really innovative powerup system. As you collect powerups, an experience bar at the bottom of the screen slowly charges up until you gain a level. There a maximum of 3 levels, each of which increase the spread and power of your weapons. When you die or use a credit, you still maintain your level, which is refreshingly forgiving. Any experience that you’ve accrued within your current level improves your firepower to a small degree. When you die, you lose this experience, so there is a small penalty for death. Each of Batsugun’s three ships fire a completely different, but equally impressive, wall of bullets or lasers at the highest powerup level.

Batsugun Saturn Toaplan 2

The excellent Beltiana. Notice the characters on the right side of the column? Those can only be selected  by player 2.

Being that Batsugun‘s console version was never released in North America, its plot is difficult to discern for non-Japanese speakers. Forgive me if this isn’t accurate; I’ve had to rely on translations from various internet sources. In the distant reaches of the universe, a man named Renoselva Gradebaran has plans for a project that will transport humans away from their motherworld, which he’s certain will soon face environmental catastrophe due to overpopulation. The government rejects his plans, so Renoselva retaliates by revolting. His revolutionary army, dubbed the “Epsilon Project”, slaughters 10 million civilians, and overthrows the government in 9 days. Unbeknowst to the Gladebarans, an  undersea hanger of state-of-the-art jet fighters has gone unnoticed. Six courageous pilots take to the skies to overthrow the oppresive Gladebaran regime. The six pilots are: Jeeno and Schneider, who pilot the Type-A ship, Beltiana and Alteeno, who pilot the Type-B ship, and Iceman and Olisis, who pilot the Type-C ship. Schneider, Alteeno, and Olisis can only be chosen by player 2, meaning that to select them on the Saturn version, you need to plug a controller into port 2. The Type-A and Type-C ships have a massive spread fire, whereas Type-B has a powerful but narrow beam. Personally, I play as Type-B (Beltiana), because I find I’m able to take down enemies much faster than with the other ships. The disadvantage is that because your bullets cover less surface area, you need to have enemy patterns better memorized so that you know where you need to be at any one time. From looking at high scores lists, it seems that the overwhelming majority of players also choose Beltiana.

Batsugun Saturn Toaplan 3

This starting area exhibits the most detail you’ll see in the game.

Scoring in Batsugun is typical of the relatively simple systems of the early 90’s. There’s no chaining, bullet grazing, or whatever other conventions are now commonplace. Instead, you need to manually collect medals that appear when you shoot down enemies and buildings. If you complete a level with a bunch of collected medals, you get a nice bonus. That being said, you lose all your medals every time you die, so getting a good score in Batsugun requires that you survive each boss without dying. If you plan to beat the game without using many credits, you’ll want to get the medal bonus on each level so that you reach the first extend. Extends are fairly rare in Batsugun; even without dying once, you’ll likely only get the first extend in the second last level. As far as I can tell, the only other scoring mechanic involves milking bosses and larger enemies for points. As in any shooter, watching a video of someone actually accomplishing these milking tactics is really impressive, because it requires you to expose yourself to danger for an inordinately long time.

Batsugun Saturn Toaplan 20

These screens are all from the arcade version, which looks essentially identical to the Saturn game.

As far as difficulty is concerned, Batsugun‘s arcade mode sits somewhere near the middle of the shooter spectrum. It’s not as easy as some of Toaplan’s earlier games, like Fire Shark, but it’s not nearly as hard as the games it inspired, like Dodonpachi or Battle Garegga. Essentially, the number of bullets on screen is fairly reasonable, but a lot of them are lighting fast, and tend to be aimed directly at you. Like in later shooters, there are waves of popcorn enemies that fire directly at you, but you’ll never feel as overwhelmed as in the previously mentioned games. The bosses are challenging, but their patterns are relatively easy to memorize. Overall, I find Batsugun‘s difficulty to be perfectly suited to my skill-level. Within a week, I was able to beat the game on two credits, which is unheard of for me when it comes to newer bullethell shooters. Another thing worth noting is that although Batsugun has several difficulty settings to choose from, I couldn’t figure out the difference between Normal and Easy, they seemed almost identical.

Batsugun Saturn Toaplan 17

One of my favorite tropes in shooters: the gigantic flying fortress.

In addition to the original arcade game, the Saturn release also includes the Special Version edition, which Toaplan developed at the end of their life cycle, but was never released in arcades. We’re able to play this version thanks to the Toaplan-offshoot company Gazelle, who coded the Saturn ports of both versions. Immediately, the Special Version looks different than the original because all the colors have been swapped. In addition, the gameplay feels fairly different because your hitbox is quite a bit smaller, your bombs are more powerful, and you get a one-time shield every time you die or level-up. If you’ve mastered the arcade version, the Special Version will feel quite a bit easier; that is, until you get to the second loop. I wasn’t expecting the game to continue after finishing the final boss, so the second loop truly threw me for a loop (*lame*). On the second loop, the enemies fire bullets more quickly, and release suicide bullets when killed. The suicide bullets make the game almost twice as difficult, and are downright ridiculous at times. Even inanimate objects fire suicide bullets when killed. After the finishing the second loop, you’re thrown into the third loop, which has even faster and more plentiful suicide bullets. Finish that, and you’ll face the final loop. Each loop contains one less stage than the previous one, so you don’t have to beat each stage four times to fully complete the Special Version. My hat goes off to anyone who accomplishes this feat. With the default 8 credits, I was able to make it to the third loop, but it was all too insane for me to try again. For anyone who calls Batsugun a bullet hell shooter, you’re totally right, but only if you’re referring to the additional loops of the Special Version.

Batsugun Saturn Toaplan 9

Apparently the arcade version has more slowdown, meaning the Saturn game is slightly harder.

I’ve saved the video game element that I typically value the most for last: the visuals. Batsugun looks… Pretty good. The backgrounds and enemies are fairly detailed, and there’s plenty of attractive color onscreen in the form of your massive firepower. Perhaps my biggest gripe is that the environments are somewhat dull. The opening underwater level is interesting, but the next two levels feature boring washed out beach backgrounds. The fourth stage is one of your typical cloud levels, and has some really impressive scrolling, but visually it’s essentially the same repeating sequence. The bosses are mainly giant airships, and look really big and impressive. Also, their weapons are all nicely detailed and animated. The overall design of Batsugun is about as traditional as sci-fi themed shooters get, which isn’t really a bad thing. Don’t expect anything really creative like the underwater theme from Darius, the bio-metallics of R-Type, or the Moai head wastelands of Gradius. Even as far as traditional themes are concerned, other Saturn shooters (which in all fairness were released later) like Battle Garegga, Dodonpachi, and Soukyugurentai have more detailed art assets. Overall, Batsugun is still a great looking game, and definitely ranks among the medium to upper tier of Saturn shooters in terms of visuals.

Batsugun Saturn Toaplan 11

Most enemies can be dispensed with quickly by using bombs, which are found abundantly. However, as with any shooter, finishing the game with a good score means conserving bombs.

I still haven’t mentioned Batsugun‘s music, mostly because it’s pretty underwhelming. It’s not bad, but compared to other shooters, it’s all fairly bland and not particularly memorable. One nice feature of the Saturn game is that you can choose to play with the arranged soundtrack, which is a nice improvement over the original.

In summary, Batsugun is a really important game in the history of shooting games, both because it was Toaplan‘s last shooter, and because it was a huge inspiration to the next evolution of the genre. Some of Toaplan‘s staff apparently still lives on at Cave (although I don’t know if this is still the case), which is really great, because the small teams that made these games had an insane amount of talent. If you have a Saturn that’s capable of playing Japanese games, you really need to own this in your collection. For everyone else, I hope you enjoy the pretty sci-fi sprites that I’ve included with this post.


Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of Batsugun-related images



Looking back, Panzer Dragoon was one of the integral series that solidified my identity as a “hardcore” gamer. Unlike many fans of Panzer Dragoon, I caught the bug at the end of its life span. Unfortunately, I never owned a Saturn back when it was current, so my early (and brief) memories of the series were from playing it at a friend’s house. Several years later, I got an Xbox, and a subscription to the Official Xbox Magazine. In one particular issue, there was a game that blew the writers away; that game was Panzer Dragoon Orta. The screens in the magazine looked incredible, and being in the midst of an obsession with all-things Japanese (which didn’t go away for a very long time), I knew the game was a must-have. Suffice to say, it was a religious experience. Although it was a mere on-rails shooter, I was in awe of the rich science fantasy universe. I say that Panzer Dragoon solidified my hardcore gamer status (I hate that term), because it was one of the first games I can remember where I actively sought out as much concept art as possible. Included as a bonus feature in Orta was the entire original Panzer Dragoon (albeit the PC version). Although the regression from Orta’s beautiful graphics to the original game was fairly jarring, the gameplay was similar, and as the years have passed, I’ve really come to really enjoy it in its own right.

panzer dragoon

If you have a choice, I recommend picking up the Japanese version of the game. It features artwork by the legendary Jean “Moebius” Giraud.

Panzer Dragoon
Developer: Team Andromeda
Publisher: Sega
Platforms: Saturn (Japanese version featured), PC, Xbox (unlockable in Panzer Dragoon Orta), PS2 (Sega Ages enhanced port)
Release Date: 1995

Panzer Dragoon -- Sega Saturn 6

This might look a lazy summer day, but in fact this is the most difficult stage in the game.

I have a real fondness for sci-fi that sets in the incredibly distant future. The reason for this is because it gives the creators carte blanche to throw any present-day taboos and moral norms out the window. Furthermore, creators are free to eschew modern design sensibilities; as far as the visuals are concerned, the sky’s the limit. Panzer Dragoon takes place thousands of years in the future, in a post-apocalyptic landscape that has been devastated by human-made bioweapons. Post-apocalyptic settings are fairly common in Japanese entertainment, and thankfully, they are rarely a mere copy of Mad Max, as is often the case in modern, North American post-apocalyptic settings.

Panzer Dragoon -- Sega Saturn 1

This beautiful sunken city provides a great intro to the game’s mechanics.

In Panzer Dragoon, humans have started to form factions to rebuild society, but are constantly at the mercy of dangerous creatures that roam the Earth. One of these factions, the Empire, have found an ancient weapons stockpile in a large black tower. Harnessing the weapons, they create a militant regime that enslaves their populace. Meanwhile, in an FMV that appears at the outset of the game, a lone hunter named Keil Fluge gets separated from his hunting party, and witnesses a rider on a large blue dragon get killed by a black dragon. The blue dragon approaches Keil, telepathically telling him that the black dragon can’t be allowed to reach the black tower. Keil mounts the blue dragon, thus taking on the quest of the deceased rider. The Empire seeks to kill the blue dragon, meaning that as Keil, you spend the game’s seven episodes hunting the black dragon, while thwarting the Empire’s countless gunships.

Panzer Dragoon -- Sega Saturn 4

Sega proving that it’s games are still the fastest in town. This corridor level is lighting quick.

Panzer Dragoon‘s graphics might be archaic by today’s standard, but in 1995, a console shooter that took place in a fully 3D environment was cutting edge. Those of us who were gaming when consoles made the leap from 2D to 3D remember how exciting the experience was. That being said, even at the time, the Saturn wasn’t known for having particularly impressive 3D visuals, especially compared to later games that were released for the PSX and N64. In 1996, Panzer’s graphics may have been impressive, but now, many of the game’s smaller enemies look like polygonal smudges. The large airships and other bosses look decent, as do the environments, which are fairly basic, but make nice use of the available color palette.

Panzer Dragoon -- Sega Saturn 10

The Dune influence is pretty obvious here.

If you’re willing to look past the dated graphics, Dragoon’s visual design and mood are one of a kind, at least in the world of video games. Borrowing from classics like Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Moebius’ Arzach, and Frank Herbert’s Dune, Dragoon’s style wasn’t totally unique, but it was, and still is, quite different from most video game sci-fi design. The game presents a mix of primitive technology with super advanced tech. The bedouin-inspired clothing and turn-of-century airships juxtapose with the high-tech remnants of the pre-apocalypse civilization. Speaking of the airships, instead of looking like cylindrical zeppelins, they come in strange conical shapes. Takashi Iwade, the lead character designer, said in an interview that instead of drawing inspiration from typical sci-fi anime, he looked at things like industrial revolution-era mechanics, myriapods, marine mollusks, and ammonite for inspiration. This creative approach to design has always been my favorite aspect of the series. Every stage has its own unique environment, ranging from a sunken city, to an underground labyrinth.

Panzer Dragoon -- Sega Saturn 12

The boss fights are really strong, and almost always  transform through multiple forms.

In terms of gameplay, PD introduced an on-rails attack system that has been emulated by several games since (Sin & Punishment and Rez come to mind). Essentially, you can hold the shoot button down to lock onto several targets and fire homing lasers, or you can repeatedly tap the shoot button to fire rapid volleys of weak projectiles. The system sounds simple, but allows for a deep level of mastery. Although it’s tempting to mostly use the lock-on attack, the rapid fire is required should you need to shoot down incoming enemy missiles. Also, as any PD fan knows, you’ll deal significantly more damage to bosses if you alternate to rapid fire during the few seconds while your homing attack cools down. In addition to the duel firing options, Keil can be rotated to face any one of four directions (front, sides, and rear). This adds significantly to the challenge, because if you aren’t careful you’ll find yourself being attacked from multiple directions at the same time. Luckily, an onscreen radar shows you where to expecting incoming enemies, and the game is programmed such that if you time the location of your attacks, you’ll never be fired on from two directions at once.

Panzer Dragoon -- Sega Saturn 11

The lock-on homing shot getting some play.

As with any shooter, the best defense is a solid offence. Surviving in PD means shooting down enemies before they can fire at you. Your character has a relatively small health bar, so you really need to stay on your toes to see the game’s ending. My biggest complaint with PD’s gameplay is something that was fixed in later entries. Basically, there are times when you’ll be facing the proper direction of incoming projectiles, but your aiming reticule is just out-of-reach. You can’t target the entire view screen, which is something I’ve found to be pretty annoying. You know a projectile is incoming, and you have plenty of time to react, but you just can’t seem to hit the stupid thing! Other than that, the game has a reasonable difficulty progression. Other than Stage 5, which is really difficult, the game is challenging, without being too punishing.

Panzer Dragoon -- Sega Saturn 8

Expect plenty of cutscenes that flesh out the story.

Panzer Dragoon’s visuals might seem primitive to modern gamers, but if there’s one element of the game that hasn’t aged since 1996, it’s the incredible soundtrack. When I say incredible, I mean: “one of the best video game soundtracks of all time” incredible. Seriously, it’s that good. Composed by Yoshitaka Azuma, it was his first video game soundtrack. The title track sounds like an Ennio Morricone song, and is comparable in tone to the title track of a Miyazaki film. Meanwhile, the rest of the songs have a more electronic, proggy sound. I’ve heard that Azuma was influenced by Tangerine Dream, so if you like their brand of ambient electronic music, you’re in for a huge treat. I’m not someone who owns many OST’s, but I’d place this near the top of my list of must-haves. In a game where you’ll inevitably die several times on the later stages, it’s nice to have a good musical accompaniment to your failure.

Panzer Dragoon might not be the prettiest game in the series, but considering it was the first entry, it established a truly unique setting and gameplay system. If you like on-rails shooters, PD is a classic example of the genre. This is a game that’s long overdue for an enhanced remake, and would probably find a receptive audience as a digital download, or as a physical release on a system like the 3DS.

Clicking this link will bring you to this product’s Amazon page. Should you choose to purchase it, I will get a small commission, which will then be reinvested into the site. Although I’m including this link, my review’s and opinions will never be influenced by the opportunity to make a commission. This site is a labor of love, but costs money to maintain, so think of any commissions as a donation to the site.

Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of images from Panzer Dragoon


I vividly remember a discussion on a gaming podcast a few years ago about how the overabundance of collector’s editions has gotten ridiculous, and that it makes absolutely no sense for the first game in a series to get a special edition release. According to the hosts of the podcast, a franchise should have to prove itself before it can be deemed worthy of a collector’s edition release. Well, if any series is more than deserving, it’s StarCraft. Personally, I love collector’s editions, albeit only when they’re done well. Since they’ve become the norm, it isn’t uncommon for publishers to make a quick cash grab by releasing a sub-par package with a bloated price. Thankfully, this isn’t the case with the StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm Collector’s Edition. Unlike many recent special editions that feature unique but forgettable trinkets, HotS plays it safe by including the standard special edition fare. Specifically, you get a behind-the-scenes DVD/Blu-ray combo, a soundtrack, an art book, a mouse pad, and a few exclusive digital avatars. As far as I’m concerned, the art book and soundtrack alone are worth the price of admission. HotS also has a digital special edition: the Digital Deluxe edition. If you’re looking for the most bang for your buck, I recommend the collector’s edition. The digital deluxe edition is nearly the same price, but only includes the digital avatars. This review will make frequent mention of Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, so if you haven’t done so, I recommend reading my review of it here.

Starcraft II Heart of the Swarm Collector's Edition

The mousepad has a nice cozy spot on my desk at work.

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Platforms: PC (Featured), Mac
Release Date: March 12, 2013

Starcraft II Heart of the Swarm 8

Kerrigan’s detailed facial expressions really add to the believability of her character.

If you still haven’t played StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, you might want to avoid this spoiler heavy paragraph. WoL ended with Jim Raynor teaming up with Valerian Mengsk, and then successfully using an ancient artifact to turn Sarah Kerrigan back into a human. HotS starts shortly after the events of WoL. Raynor and Kerrigan are still on Char, and Valerian Mengsk is testing whether Kerrigan still has the ability to control the swarm (hint: she can). Soon enough Arturus Mengsk crashes the party with a battalion of troops intent on killing Raynor and Kerrigan. Kerrigan escapes and manages to meet up with the Hyperion, only to find out that Raynor has supposedly been killed. Devastated, she summons the zerg swarm to destroy Arcturus Mengsk.

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book -- Peter Lee

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book — Peter Lee

Starcraft II Heart of the Swarm 26

No other game gives you control of an alien force in as gratifying a way StarCraft.

It isn’t exactly a secret that HotS has you playing the bad guy (or more accurately, the bad girl). Mengsk might be an evil dictator, but Kerrigan goes to extreme lengths to see him dead. To amass an army large enough to kill Mengsk, Kerrigan must unleash the zerg on countless planets, at the expense of millions of civilian lives. Although I’ve never seen this scenario explored in a video game, the original Dune books had a protagonist who was responsible for at least as much bloodshed. I find this angle more interesting than your standard good vs. bad scenario, but I’m still unsure of how I feel about Kerrigan as a character. I don’t tend to like the “badass chick” archetype who’s always in a bad mood and scowling, and Kerrigan definitely fits this mold. On the flip side, Kerrigan is about as strong  a female lead as they come, and to be fair, she has a reason to be pissed. Every once in a while, we see a hint of her soft side; it was these scenes that made me feel sympathetic towards her struggle, and did the best job of developing her as a multidimensional character. Unfortunately, these scenes were too few and far between, and I feel like Blizzard fell just short of creating a truly unique video game protagonist. Don’t get me wrong, Kerrigan is still one of the deeper video game protagonists, but I feel like she wasn’t explored to her full potential. Like it or not, Kerrigan appears as a playable character in nearly every mission, so prepare to spend a lot of time with her.

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book -- Luke "Mr. Jack" Mancini

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book — Luke “Mr. Jack” Mancini

Starcraft II Heart of the Swarm 4

HotS has plenty of lovely assets.

Like in WoL, you spend downtime between missions hanging out on your ship. This time around, your ship is a massive living organism called the Leviathan, and your crew is a hodgepodge of alien misfits. Your crewmates show up one by one throughout the game, meaning that the ship is a fairly boring place for the first dozen missions. Initially, I found the ship sections much less interesting than in WoL, but as time wore on, and more characters appeared, it became nearly, but not quite, as interesting as WoL’s Hyperion. The Hyperion had more rooms to explore, and more objects and people to interact with, but HotS’s alien freak show has its moments. Among the new cast is a creature called Abathur who creates new zerg mutations. Abathur quickly became not only my favorite new character in StarCraft, but one of my favorites in all of video games. He’s basically an unwittingly sinister version of Data from Star Trek: Next Generation. Although he’s essentially emotionless, he often becomes jealous of foreign zerg mutations that he’s incapable of creating himself. As always, Blizzard‘s character have superbly written dialogue, which is well delivered by their voice actors. Perhaps by biggest complaint is that spending so much time with the zerg really diminishes their mysteriousness, and the fear factor. The zerg are no longer scary, which I guess was inevitable.

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book -- Luke "Mr. Jack" Mancini

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book — Luke “Mr. Jack” Mancini

Starcraft II Heart of the Swarm 11

This giant swarm host is one of Hots’s excellent boss battles. Pausing to take a screen cap nearly resulted in Kerrigan getting fried in alien bile.

For fans of violent alien swarms, no other game puts you in the hot seat quite as nicely HotS. Nearly every one of HotS’s 27 missions has you amassing at least a hundred units and then wreaking havoc, which is as satisfying as it sounds. Like in WoL, Blizzard does an awesome job of providing unique mission scenarios, most of which subtly introduce you to a new zerg unit. Overall, the difficulty felt more challenging than in WoL, which seemed appropriate given that many gamers have been playing StarCraft II for over two years now. One mission in particular does an excellent job of showing off just how skilled Blizzard are at their craft. The mission is essentially a boss rush; giving you control of Kerrigan and a small band of zerg as she tackles three massive bosses. The bosses are super challenging; forcing you to memorize attack patterns and utilize every ability in Kerrigan’s arsenal. This mission does a great job of showing off just how well individual units control; in fact, you feel like you’re fighting a boss in World of Warcraft.

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book -- Luke "Mr. Jack" Mancini

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book — Luke “Mr. Jack” Mancini

Starcraft II Heart of the Swarm 17

One mission has you controlling the Hyperion in a fun mini-game-like space sequence. I really appreciate that Blizzard takes the time to incorporate all kinds of unique gameplay elements in the single player that can’t be experienced online.

In the review I wrote for WoL, I mentioned that although I thought the art design was mostly really good, the cartooniness was a little bit much at times. In HotS, the design is as cartoony as ever,  but I think I’ve started to embrace it. HotS’s colorful pallete is actually fairly refreshing compared to the muted greys of many modern military sci-fi games. Actually, HotS’s pre-rendered cut-scenes (which are as excellent as always) are much darker and grittier than the in-game engine, and look a lot more like the aforementioned games. Maybe it’s because the game features fewer humans, but there are a lot less soul patches and cycling shades this time around. That being said, Zeratul still looks like a reject from a kids fantasy cartoon.

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book -- Peter Lee

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book — Peter Lee

Starcraft II Heart of the Swarm 5

Meet Abathur, my new favorite character in the StarCraft universe.

Included with the collector’s edition is a really impressive 140-page hardcover art book. I say it’s really impressive because I’ve never seen such a high quality art book included with a game. The cover has an embossed design, and the paper is nice and glossy. A grand total of 25 artists are featured, and surprisingly, the editors actually took the time to list which artists were responsible for each piece! As I’ve mentioned in previous art book reviews, it’s fairly rare for gaming art books to give proper credit to their artists.

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book -- Joe Peterson

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book — Joe Peterson

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Once you complete the single player, you can replay the missions with new added twists.

There are three sections in the art book: one for each race. As expected, Blizzard can afford to hire excellent concept artists, so the quality of each piece is top-notch. Because the game is centered around the zerg, they get the most attention. Since their inception, the zerg have really taken on a look that sets them apart from the creatures they were inspired by (xenomorphs and tyrannids). Increasingly, the zerg design has become less about organic goo, and more about armor plating, jagged teeth, spines, and claws. Essentially, the zerg have started to look more like dinosaurs, which isn’t a bad thing. My favorite part of HotS takes place on ancient world, where the zerg predecessors, called the primal zerg, roam free. The primal zerg are even closer in appearance to dinosaurs, and their world is composed of lush, prehistoric tropical environments. Artist Peter Lee’s illustrations of these environments are my favorite concepts within the book. Even his “rough sketches”, as they’re labeled within the book, look incredible.

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book -- Brian Huang

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book — Brian Huang

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Kerrigan facing her demons. Blizzard proves some of the best pre-rendered cutscenes in the industry.

Also included with the collector’s edition is the soundtrack to HotS. As I mentioned in my WoL review, StarCraft‘s soundtracks have always been excellent, and this is no exception. The soundtrack is composed of equal parts orchestrated segments, and equal parts moody electronic sections. I’ve never been a fan of big, bombastic orchestrated soundtracks, but as video games have gotten bigger, they’ve increasingly becomes the norm. Personally I prefer the ambient electronic portions, but I might be in the minority with that opinion. Either way, the soundtrack is really well done, and it’s gotten a fair degree of airtime in my car.

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book -- Joe Peterson

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book — Joe Peterson

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Seveon of the 27 missions are bonus “Evolution Missions”, that have you picking between one of two possible upgrades for a given unit.

In addition to the soundtrack, the collector’s edition also comes with a behind-the-scenes DVD/Blu-ray. If you’re expecting a full making-of HotS, you’ll be disappointed, but as a bonus it still has a certain degree of entertainment value. There are two featurettes that give you a glimpse of the making of the game: a section on the cinematics, and a section on the recording of the audio voice-overs. Both of these sections are of the same quality as any of the best making-of documentaries, which is too bad, because they left me yearning for more! Also included is a section on the eSports legacy of StarCraft, which is basically a fan-made swansong to the community, and an in-depth explanation of how to use the in-game map editor. Both of these segments were well done, but I would’ve easily traded them for more making-of. The video also includes your typical extras like trailers and production stills.

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book -- Joe Peterson

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book — Joe Peterson

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Meet the Leviathan’s crew. Although I can understand why Blizzard had to make the zerg more human, I think it would’ve been more fun had they been more evil.

Like I said in my WoL review, I’m a pretty average online player, so I can’t comment with any authority on the balance of HotS’s new online units. The protoss get three new air units: the Mothership and Oracle, which are both support units, and the Tempest, which is a long range attack ship. Terrans see the return of hellbats: flamethrower wielding mechs that deal splash damage, and the new widow mines, which are fast moving, mobile mines that are cloaked when set in the ground.  Zerg get vipers, which are air attack units with support abilities, and swarm hosts, which are units that spawn multiple, zergling-like units from crevasses on their back. Apart from the new units, the online experience hasn’t changed a whole lot since WoL. There are a bunch of new unlockable portraits and achievements, but other than that you’re looking at the same multiplayer options and interface from WoL. Some of these rewards are incredibly hardcore to achieve compared to the standards of other games; for example, the Queen of Blades character portrait requires that you win 1000 1v1 online matches. Also, a word of warning: although the online matchmaking is supposed to pit you against players who match your level of experience, everyone playing HotS had to start back at level 1, so expect to get your ass handed to you by scores of StarCraft II veterans.

Although HotS is an expansion, had this not been a Blizzard game, this could easily have been a numbered sequel. Blizzard likes to make massive leap forwards between numbered releases in their series, but the jump from WoL to HotS isn’t far removed from something like Gears of War 2 to Gears of War 3. In fact, this is almost a bigger jump, because you’re in control of an entirely different race and cast of characters than in the previous game. If you enjoyed WoL, you probably already own this game, but if you’re on the fence, I recommend it highly. Furthermore, the collector’s edition is worth the extra cash. The art book and soundtrack could easily have been stand-alone-releases. Like I said with my WoL review, if you’re into military sci-fi and you haven’t given StarCraft a chance, you’re really missing out. Even if you don’t care for the competetive experience, the single-player campaign is excellent, and provides plenty of replay value.

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For anyone who was gaming in the 90’s, StarCraft was a cultural phenomenon that was near unavoidable. If for whatever reason you weren’t playing the game, you had at least several buddies who were, and who would talk about it endlessly. My favorite memory of SC happened when I was in junior high. A friend of mine and I were talking about StarCraft on a bus ride home, and were overheard by another friend who was sitting nearby. Our other friend was a hockey prodigy; a super jock. Overhearing us, he mentioned that he played Starcraft from time to time, and asked if we’d be interested in playing against him online. Furthermore, he encouraged us to team up against him. Neither of us had ever imagined that this sports hero had any interest in video games, so we thought it would be an easy victory. Later that night, he set up the match, and told us he wouldn’t attack until we were both 100% prepared. My close friend and I had one half of the map to ourselves, while he had his own half of the map. Finally we were ready to attack, and ventured into his half of the map. To our horror, his half was the ultimate zerg nightmare! After 20 minutes of play, he had managed to fill every single available space with the most perfect, symmetrical base I’ve ever seen, even to this day. Every square inch of space was filled with zerg structures, all laid out in perfect order. Obviously we were obliterated. Everyone was playing StarCraft, probably even your mom and/or dog.

I’ve often held that StarCraft is the most perfect, balanced competitive game of all time. Every race plays completely differently, but somehow there’s no one race that’s obviously overpowered. Announced back in 2007, StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty had the biggest shoes to fill. Personally, I was just happy the series was getting a sequel, but it was obvious that this game would face perhaps more scrutiny than any game ever. Due to my lack of a gaming PC back in 2010, when SCII:WoL was released, I was only able to play the campaign recently. Now, I’d like to emphasize that this post will be focusing mostly on the campaign, and from the angles that Xenomorphosis knows best: sci-fi horror and military sci-fi. I’ll leave the technical aspects of multiplayer to the thousands of pro players who undoubtedly know ten times more than me about the specific mechanics and subtleties of the game.

StarCraft II Wings of Liberty Cover

There are some really great variations of this cover floating around on the interweb.

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Platforms: PC (Featured), Mac
Release Date: July 27, 2010

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A massive battle featuring several new units, including titans and medivacs.

Four years after the events of StarCraft: Brood War, Jim Raynor, space cowboy, is still being hunted by Arcturus Mengsk, emperor of the dominion (the current government). Mengsk also happens to be the man responsible for betraying Kerrigan (Raynor’s love interest) to the zerg. Kerrigan was abandoned on a hostile planet by Mengsk, and was turned into a powerful zerg hybrid: the Queen of the Blades. Raynor is set on restoring Kerrigan to her former self, and has started a rebel group called Raynor’s Raiders who are dead-set on overthrowing the Dominion, and putting Mengsk to justice. Meanwhile, an old friend of Raynor’s, Tychus Findlay, who took a fall for Raynor and subsequently spent the last decade or so doing jail time, has mysteriously appeared. Findlay is by far the most interesting character in SCII:WoL, and it’s never quite clear what his true motives are. Findlay has apparently been contracted by a mysterious group called the Moebius Corporation to retrieve valuable Xel’naga (an ancient race in SC lore) artifacts. Jim agrees to help him, because he needs the cash to fund his rebel efforts. There are several other major players in SCII:WoL, and each one is superbly voice acted and has a memorable personality. SCII:WoL all takes place from the perspective of the terrans (humans), so don’t expect any zerg or protoss missions (although there are actually a few).

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Many of the units from the first SC, including the medics pictured here, are included in the campaign, but aren’t playable online

SCII:WoL’s backstory is rich and interesting, especially for a series that is predominantly known for its multiplayer, and could easily sell millions of copies without any single player whatsoever. Lucky for us, Blizzard cares about providing an excellent single player experience. SCII:WoL is by the far the best example I’ve ever seen of narrative in an RTS game. During the current console generation, in-game storytelling in first person and third person action games progressed immensely, to the point where the games that do it poorly stick out like a sore thumb (I’m looking at you Aliens: Colonial Marines). That being said, with the popularity of console games this generation, the RTS genre has fallen a bit to the wayside. I can tell you exactly how narrative is usually dealt with in action games, but in RTS’, not so much. There’s no obvious mold.

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As always, Blizzard delivers kickass cutscenes.

SCII:WoL has over 4 hours of scripted cutscenes, but the degree to which you watch these is often at your discretion. Many of the cinematics take place when you optionally engage with characters in-between missions. Raynor’s flagship, the hyperion, serves as an in-between mission hang-out area where you can explore various sections of the ship, engage in conversation with characters to learn more backstory, or spend credits to earn unit upgrades. I really enjoyed these periods of downtime between combat, and the superb quality of the dialogue during cutscenes in the hyperion was always worth checking out. I’ve come to realize that the games I become the most addicted to are those that intersperse intense action with “downtime”. RPGs do this by having you explore towns in-between dungeons. Essentially, SCs missions are like dungeons, and the hyperion is your town. About three quarters of SC’s cutscenes are experienced optionally in the Hyperion, so you’re missing out on a lot of story if you skip these sections.

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The environments in the campaign are really attractive.

Other RPG-like elements that SCII:WoL incorporates are optional missions, and upgrades for your army units. The optional missions don’t feel like optional missions, because the same level of care was put into them as any mainline mission. There are at least two occasions where you have to chose between one of two story options to progress, although apparently the ending of the game is the same regardless of which decisions you make. The upgrade options allow you to spend credits that you earn in missions to purchase enhancements to your units. Don’t expect any intricate upgrade trees, but the ability to upgrade does let you customize your army to fit your play style, albeit to a small extent.

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The cantina; one of the many areas of the hyperion where you can gather information and purchase upgrades. The arcade cabinet at the left features a playable shooter!

Nearly every mission in the game has bonus objectives. Completing these objectives gives you access to zerg or protoss research credits that can be spent on an additional set of upgrades. The bonus objectives add an extra level of challenge to the campaign missions, and are often required if you wish to earn all the game’s achievements. The achievement system in SCII:WoL acts like an even more difficult set of bonus objectives, often challenging you to beat missions in a certain time-limit, or perform difficult feats of strategy.

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Unique mercenary units can be recruited and purchased in the campaign. These act much like Warcraft III’s hero units, but are much more expendable

The original StarCraft was a game that borrowed heavily from Warhammer 40k, at least visually. To be honest, that’s never bother me very much, because at least they chose a great look to emulate, and did a good job of emulating it. Looking back at SC, it was actually a fairly dark game. Although some of the characters were tongue-in-cheek, the color palette was dark, and the game had a (mostly) gritty realism. Structures looked worn out, units exploded with gore when you killed them, and the zerg were probably the best rip-offs of xenomorphs around. Furthermore, some of the cutscenes acted out like pure homages to Aliens. That all brings me to SCII:WoL, which looks great, but is infected by what I’m going to dub the “WarCraft Taint”.

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Missions can be selected from the bridge of the hyperion.

So what is the WarCraft Taint? When StarCraft came along, Blizzard took great lengths to distinguish the visual style from simply being “WarCraft in Space”. To differentiate it from WarCraft, Blizzard made StarCraft darker and grittier. Several years later, Warcraft III was released, and the Warcraft Taint began. Blizzard is a company that’s excellent at producing graphics engines that perform nicely even on computers with low specs. WarCraft III was a great example of this design philosophy. To achieve this goal, they designed an engine that had a distinctly cartoony look, rather than try to achieve the highest end graphics. Everything was colorful, rounded and blocky, which was fine for WarCraft, because it was always a cartoony series.

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The new marauder units, as featured in the armory.

Fast forward several more years to World of Warcraft. WoW is an example of the cartoon style taken to extreme lengths. In retrospective, much of the concept design is fairly sketchy, for lack of a better term. For what it is, the game looks fine, but it’s essentially generic fantasy art done in a childish style. Yes, I know this opinion is super controversial, but I’ll stand by it. Heck, an entire race is made up of cows that walk on two feet and ride around on fat dinosaurs. It’s great Pixar material.

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The zerg hives are always fun to look at.

StarCraft II, on the other hand, still retains much of the “gritty sci-fi” look that the series is known for, and is overall an excellent looking game, but the Warcraft Taint rears its ugly head every so often. For example, much of the protoss design has gotten more colorful and exaggerated, and the human characters in particular look like stereotypical comic archetypes. Actually, I’m going to go on a limb and say that the human character design is mostly awful (the people, not the units). Raynor looks like Kid Rock, Gabriel Tosh is your typical “rasta guy” with dreadlocks, Rory Swann looks like a dwarf, Valerian Mengsk looks like the main bad guy from Shrek, Kerrigan is a chick with dreadlocks (which was oh so cool in the 90’s), Zeratul has a really silly looking bandana covering his face, and nearly every male character has either a soul patch, cycling shades, or goggles. Basically, the cast is a mishmash of the most rad looking dudes from the 90’s, which as you can imagine looks pretty lame circa 2010. Furthermore, the Warcraft Taint managed to work its way into some of the cutscenes; there’s one in particular where Zeratul and Kerrigan battle it out by launching fireball-like projectiles at each other. During this sequence, I felt like I could easily have been watching a WoW video. Anyways, SCII still looks really good for the most part; it’s just unfortunate that Blizzard has allowed its cartoony sensibilities to creep into its “grittier” properties. Remember, this is the studio that was most recently known for introducing kung fu pandas into its flagship franchise.

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The laboratory, where you can purchase upgrades.

The gameplay in SCII:WoL is as excellent as ever. As usual, gameplay consists of gathering resources, constructing buildings, researching upgrades, and training an army to attack the enemy, all while fending off enemy attacks. The campaign missions always manage to incorporate unique scenarios, meaning that they never play out like your typical online multiplayer match. For example, one mission has you completing objectives while avoiding intermittent flooding by lava, another has you hijacking trains that appear at varying intervals, and another has you stealthily playing as Nova (from the unfortunately cancelled StarCraft Ghost). The variety is really impressive, and each mission finds a way to cleverly teach you how to control a new terran unit. Essentially the entire campaign acts as a comprehensive tutorial on how to play as terrans. Perhaps my only gripe with this, is that the campaign is a little too heavy on tutorial, and would have benefited from having more of the challenging, post-tutorial missions. By the time you finish learning all the new units, the campaign is essentially over.

StarCraft II Wings of Liberty 1

A really cool feature in the campaign is that you can summon troops via drop pods. I really badly wanted this in the multiplayer.

Instead of just rehashing the units from the original SC and its expansions, 40% of the units in SCII:WoL are brand new. Terrans get new units like the titan (giant mechs), banshees (fast airships that are good against ground units), and my personal favorite, medivacs (air transport ships with healing capabilities). Protoss get units like the stalker (essentially the new dragoon), immortals (also like dragoons), collosi (giant mechs that shoot death rays), and probably the coolest new addition, motherships (which look exactly like you’d expect). Zerg players now have roaches (burrowing units), infestors (spellcasters that can infect units), and nydus worms (giant burrowing worms that spout out zerg units). Personally I like the new additions, but I’m sure a more seasoned player could tell you exactly which units were nerfed, are too overpowered, etc. It’s just nice to see that Blizzard took a risk by switching up the units so drastically.

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Every single mission loading screen has its own awesome illustration. This is the full view of Raynor’s flagship, the hyperion.

As usual, SC: WoL’s multiplayer can either be played online or against AI opponents. Unlike in the original StarCraft, its now extremely easy to join a match, albeit at the expense of match customization options. Essentially you join matches in a “quick match” style, rather than picking from individually hosted games. For whatever reason, Blizzard dropped LAN play from SCII:WoL, which is a shame, because many of my fondest memories of the original were from playing at buddies’ houses. Apparently tournament players are pissed, because they have to rely on unreliable internet play, even when competing from within the same room.

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After completing the campaign, there are additional challenge missions. This game is packed full of content.

Other features I haven’t had time to mention are the Arcade, and the soundtrack. The Arcade allows you to download various mods and game modes, and presents them in a nice, easily manageable interface. Blizzard does a fantastic job of engaging with its community, and the arcade is a clear example of that engagement. Last but not least, SCII:WoL’s soundtrack is fantastic! It’s mainly comprised of moody jazz or electronic arrangements, with a healthy dose of electric guitar interspersed. It perfectly captures the space cowboy vibe of the series, and I must say, I’ve been really appreciating the soundtrack as I play online.

As you can tell from the tone of this post, I’m loving SCII:WoL, and I think it’s an excellent game. Like the first game, I know I’ll be playing it for years to come. Even if you’re not into RTS’, you owe it to yourself to at least check out the campaign if, like me, you dig alien infestations and badass marines in power armor.

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As I’ve repeated several times before, Dead Space is a godsend for fans of sci-fi horror. The series channels the best elements of movies like The Thing (1982), Aliens, and Event Horizon, but manages to create a combination of terror that not only feels fresh and unique, but also meets (and sometimes exceeds) the quality of its source material. As some people would have you believe, the series has progressively moved away from pure scares towards a more action oriented package. Personally, I feel that Dead Space has always placed just as much emphasis on combat as on horror, and it’s the perfect blend of the two that makes the games so much fun to play. Contrary to popular opinion, the combat, which revolves around dismembering enemies, hasn’t changed a whole lot since the first game was released in 2006. The major difference between the first game and the last two entries is that there are now substantially more characters involved. Dead Space was about isolation, whereas Dead Space 3 is about isolation interspersed with character interaction. The point I’m trying to make is that Dead Space 3 is not a survival horror game, but in its defense, Dead Space has never been a pure survival horror series. Anyone who tries to trick you into thinking that the original Dead Space was pure survival horror has never played the early Resident Evils or Silent Hills. In those two series, resources were extremely scarce, and it was often advantageous to avoid combat rather than confront it head-on. Dead Space, on the other hand, is extremely upfront with its combat. Many sections force you to kill every oncoming enemy before you can proceed onwards. Resources in DS games are fairly abundant, and terminals allow you to purchase ammunition and health should you find yourself short on supplies. Real survival horror games never present you with such luxuries. So does it matter that Dead Space 3, just like DS1 and DS2, is more about combat than pure survival? Hell no. The movie Aliens took the original Alien formula and soaked it in action, but last I checked people on message boards didn’t have a massive hissy fit and boycott the series. Unfortunately, this is what seems to have happened with Dead Space 3. Forgive me if this review spends too much time challenging the backlash that Dead Space 3 has been receiving since it was first announced. As a big fan of the series, Dead Space 3 does not disappoint.

Dead Space 3 -- Cover

Sci-fi horror with a white background? Ballsy.

Dead Space 3
Developer: Visceral
Publisher: EA
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Featured), PS3, PC
Release Date: February 5, 2013

Dead Space 2 concluded with Isaac Clarke destroying a marker on the Sprawl, a space station orbiting one of Saturn’s moons. The resulting carnage destroyed the Sprawl, but Isaac managed to escape with his love interest Ellie. DS3 starts with an interesting prologue sequence that takes place 200 years before the start of the first game, and then promptly fast forwards to two months after the events on the Sprawl. We find Isaac in a small apartment in the midst of a small city on the surface of a moon. As we discovered at the end of DS2, there are numerous marker projects, many of which are found in urban locations. Unfortunately for Isaac, this urban location happens to have one. We find out through an old phone message that Ellie has left Isaac because he had become too detached and self-absorbed as a result of the marker incidents. Soon after our introduction to Isaac, several people burst into his apartment and hold him at gunpoint. It turns out they’re “the last battalion” of EarthGov, and that they know the whereabouts of Ellie, who works with their group but has gone missing. Long story short, Isaac joins the EarthGov party, but not until after being chased by an extreme sect of unitilogists led by a man named Danik. Danik, an somewhat harmless looking man in a park, serves as the main antagonist in DS3. Unsurprisingly, the major subplot in DS3 revolves around Isaac trying to win Ellie back, all while battling necros and Danik’s army of unitologists. DS3 does an excellent job of weaving the storyline into the gameplay, which means there are few moments where you don’t have some level of control over Isaac. In fact, for those people who were worried that DS3 would be too heavy on scripted action sequences (myself included), there are actually fewer scripted sequences per hour of gameplay than in DS2.

Dead Space 3 -- 1

This helmet is so damn cool looking, but I was never able to unlock this suit.

The story is just as engaging as in the previous games, and becomes progressively more captivating as Isaac and crew explore the remnants of an old marker conspiracy on a snow planet called Tau Volantis. One of my favorite themes in science fiction is the exploration of an unknown environment. On this front, Dead Space 3 delivers in spades. The snowy environments of Tau Volantis are reminiscent of the locales in the first Lost Planet. In addition to the snow planet, the game is still rife with “traditional” space station-style environments. The combination of tight corridors with the occasional outdoor section is a refreshing addition to the series. Back to the story, the element that I find the most difficult to grasp is the fact that EarthGov has apparently dissolved, seemingly overnight. Only 2 months before the events of DS3, EarthGov was a massive evil bureaucracy. Although it’s barely addressed, I think it’s implied that the unitilogists have overthrown EarthGov, which doesn’t really make any sense because the two entities were supposed to be incredibly intertwined. As a whole, it’s a little disappointing that DS3 makes so little reference to the events and players of the previous games; it seems that Visceral opted for a more contained story this time around.

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Much like Lost Planet, DS2 has several giant snow monsters with conveniently glowing vulnerable points. Actually, much like in LP2, you get to travel through a giant monster’s bowels.

Aesthetically, Dead Space 3 is easily the most visually interesting game in the series. Tau Volantis was previously explored by a contingent of scientists and soldiers from the Sovereign Colonies Armed Forces (SCAF), the central human government that was eventually dethroned by EarthGov. This “older” culture gave Visceral the opportunity to design a brand new human aesthetic. The SCAF settlements look like they were patterned after old nuclear submarines and soviet-era accoutrements. This creates an interesting juxtaposition with the ultra-slick stylings of the 26th century. Furthermore, there are now many new necromorph models, each of which is patterned after the look of its deceased host. The radical unitologists sect also has its own unique look, incorporating elements of Mad Max-style punk design into the typical heavy clothing and armor of the future. In addition to the clothing, Dead Space 3 has more environments than ever, and presents no fewer than three different styles of spaceship interior, each of which looks fantastic. As always with the series, DS3 is a game that can be enjoyed thanks to pretty eye-candy alone.

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The remnants of EarthGov. Adios.

As I mentioned earlier in the post, Dead Space 3 has plenty of combat, which is even more fun than usual thanks to the inclusion of a new weapon crafting system. Weapons are now fully customizable, meaning that you’re free to create weapons that suit you’re particular style of play. Essentially, you’re combining parts that are found scattered around the game world to create weapons that (usually) have two modes of fire. For example, you can craft an assault rifle that has a shotgun attachment, or a flamethrower, or a buzzsaw, or a line cutter, etc. The weapon crafting is extremely fun, and adds an extra layer of depth to the typical DS combat. I probably spent several hours just crafting guns; you could say I was pretty addicted.

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Isaac and Carver showing a snecromorph (snow+necromorph, I just made that up) how to die.

Almost as awesome as the new weapon crafting, the inclusion of optional side-missions in DS3 is my second favorite new feature. These essentially play out as optional “dungeons”, and add quite a bit of meat to the main storyline. For anyone looking for the isolated, spooky Dead Space 3 experience, the optional dungeons should keep you entertained. Generally they’re more difficult and more scary than the regular story sequences. Each optional area tells its own story, meaning that you’re missing out on a lot of interesting fiction if you skip these sections. In fact, my favorite narrative in DS3 was a small side-story told in one of these optional areas. If you’re hooked on the crafting system, the obvious reason to explore these areas is for the promise of unique weapons parts. The combination of the new crafting system and optional areas mean that DS3 feels like a mini version of a loot based RPG (think Diablo or Borderlands). I personally love this new direction, and would kill to see the loot-based RPG elements explored further in subsequent DS games.

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Isaac Clarke: the man of a million gruesome deaths.

An inordinate amount of internet rage has been fueled by the inclusion of microtransactions and human enemies in DS3. Firstly, the microtransactions are really not a big deal. In fact, I wouldn’t have noticed them if I hadn’t specifically been looking. When in the weapon crafting menu, you can press a (fairly hidden) button to pull up the online storefront. In this storefront, you can spend real cash to get in-game resources or weapon parts. Alternatively, you can spend credits that you acquire throughout the campaign to buy these same virtual packages. By the end of my first playthrough, I was able to buy three of the most expensive packages using in-game credits that I’d acquired. These purchases were the equivalent of a few dollars of real cash. Truth be told, you acquire so many resources throughout the game that I can’t imagine why you’d bother to spend actual money. In fact, a friend of mine couldn’t even figure out how to access the online storefront without my help; the microtransactions are that unobtrusive. I actually feel stupid spending so much time writing about the microtransactions, because they’re really not a big deal.

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Isaac Clarke: the master of exploding body parts. In this case, this is a real man whose head is exploding.

The introduction of human enemies in DS3 serve to add some extra flavor to the tried and true necro dismemberment. It almost feels novel to be able to shoot an enemy in the head, and subsequently expect it to die. The segments where you fight humans are actually fairly rare, and I actually wished there had been more of them. Most importantly, these sections do not turn DS3 into a mindless cover based shooter, as certain gamers hypothesized. I can’t tell you how many times I heard DS3 being referred to as “Call of Dead Space”. For anyone who follows the story in DS games, it makes absolute sense to fight humans. As anyone knows, the humans are the main antagonists, at least plot-wise. Because these segments were so uncommon, it’s difficult to comment on the quality of the human AI. It definitely wasn’t noticeably bad, although these sections are somewhat easier than the typical scuffles with necromorphs. It was almost a tad bit disturbing when I dismembered my first human opponent… Let’s just say they dismember just as easily as any necro, which is satisfying, albeit in a way that makes you feel a little icky afterwards.

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You got your Thing my Dead Space!

Perhaps one of DS3’s strongest points: the sound design is incredible. When you meet one of the first necros, it slowly peels itself off the ceiling, all while the sounds of bones breaking echo off the walls. The sonic atmosphere is incredibly creepy, and you’ll often find yourself on-edge because you think you may have heard a nearby enemy. Complimenting the sound effects, the music also adds the perfect atmosphere to the experience. There are many subtle nods to songs from the game’s source material. For example, there’s a track that sounds uncannily similar to the main theme from The Thing.

Dead Space 3 -- 16

Perhaps the only clean environment in the entire universe of Dead Space.

As it should be clear from the tone of this review, I really enjoyed DS3. The gameplay, art design and music are all really high calibre. Just like in the previous games, DS3 is crammed with a ton of replay value. After beating the game, you unlock the typical New Game+ mode, which allows you to start a new game with all your items and weapons from the previous play-through, as well several new “throwback” modes that alter your available weapons and control  styles. I must admit, I’ve played very little of the brand new co-op mode, which is the major new selling point of the franchise. What little I did play was really fun. Players are free to drop in and out as they desire, and there are bonus areas that can only be accessed in co-op. This is co-op done right, and doesn’t feel like a tacked on afterthought. All that being said, the game is still excellent when played alone, so if you prefer playing solo, co-op is definitely not mandatory.

The most important thing about Dead Space 3 is that it’s just really fun to play, and feels polished as hell. Anyone who has even a passing interest in sci-fi horror should really check it out.

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Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of Dead Space 3-related images

Necronomiclones: Gigeresque Imagery in Video Games is an ongoing series that covers Swiss artist H.R. Giger’s influence on video game art design.


In continuing the theme of covering Contra games, this post will explore the gigeresque imagery in Super Contra and Super C. The popularity of the original Contra led to a bevy of sequels, each of which drew more liberally from Giger’s vision. The first of these was Super Contra, which was released for arcades in 1988.

Super Contra -- Promotional Art

Super Contra — Promotional Art — Alien reference: check, Predator reference: double-check

Super Contra
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Featured Platform: Arcade
Release Date: 1988

Super Contra -- Opening Cinematic

Super Contra — Opening Cinematic — Red eye

The aliens from the original have returned, and this time they’re possessing human bodies. If there’s one thing (get it, human possession, The Thing) aliens are terrible at, it’s staying dead. Bill and Lance are sent to an infected military base to eradicate the alien menace once and for all!  This one’s a real tear-jerker, because our heroes are forced to kill their former comrades. Comrades be damned, we’ll burn the aliens out of them if we have to!

Super Contra -- Opening Cinematic

Super Contra — Opening Cinematic — Gas mask skulls

The game starts with an opening cinematic that features a one-eyed xenomorph. It’s lucky that Konami had the license to produce Aliens games, because otherwise they’d have had good cause to fear a lawsuit. Then again, in the wild west days of 80s arcade games, lawsuits probably weren’t much of a concern. Continuing the opening cinematic, Bill and Lance are seen running down a hive-like corridor. Jutting from the corridor are, for lack of a better term, the “gas mask skulls” that are commonplace in Giger’s artwork. An obvious example is the space jockey head from Alien, which was later revealed to be a helmet in Prometheus.

Super Contra -- Stage 3 Boss

Super Contra — Stage 3 Boss — Strange…

Super Contra commences with what would later become a trope in Contra games: our hero is dropped into the enemy base from a helicopter. He proceeds to fight his way to an assault helicopter boss, and then enters an Ikari Warriors-esque overhead stage where he destroys a large enemy tank that looks as if it was teleported in from the G.I. Joe universe. Continuing onward, he traverses a jungle, and encounters the first real Giger moment. Fixed to a wall is an alien head that fires red homing lasers. I’m really at odds with describing this boss. Even for a Japanese creation, he’s pretty strange-looking. He has an incredibly happy grimace, sort of like a really content alien cat. Scuttling across a platform below are several octopus cyclops that vomit pink goo. This boss is all kinds of weird.

Super Contra -- Stage 4

Super Contra — Stage 4 — That xenomorph is about to get sucked into the vagina door

Proceeding onwards, our hero enters the real meat of the game: the alien hive. This time around, the hive is fairly different looking from the arcade version of the first game. The color pallet is considerably grayer; in fact I think the mix of grey with purple in the original game’s hive is significantly more attractive than Super Contra’s abundance of grey on grey.

I’d like to take this time to point out one of my major criticisms with the arcade Contras. Man, the colors are ugly. The contrast is totally off; instead of any strong colors, the screen is dominated with muted grays. I’ve never seen any other arcade games that suffer from this problem. Because of the overabundance of grey, any time there’s a hint of colour, it looks incredibly jarring. Enough ranting, back to the game…

The floor of the hive consists of a skeletal webbing, and the ceiling is a network of what are best described as intestines. For the first time in a contra game, regular-sized xenomorphs are featured as enemies. They attack in droves; literally running at the hero. They’re in such a hurry that they’ll run offscreen should you jump over them. Even real xenomorphs aren’t this persistent. After killing dozens of xenomorphs, you’re confronted with one of the coolest bosses in video games: a giant winged xenomorph! The xenomorph has one eye, and a massive inner jaw that extends to at least eight feet (judging by the height of the protagonist). Coincidentally, one of Giger’s paintings features what looks like a winged xenomorph.

Super Contra Stage 4 Boss vs. H.R. Giger's winged xenomorph

Super Contra Stage 4 Boss vs. H.R. Giger’s winged xenomorph

Super Contra -- Stage 5 Final Boss

Super Contra — Stage 5 Final Boss — The creepiest eyes ever

After defeating the boss, you then negotiate a second portion of the hive, this time from an overhead perspective. The floor is bisected by gigeresque ribbed walls that curl offscreen. At the back of the chamber is the final boss. This guy is ugly, but in the best possible way. His giant head envelopes the center of the screen, and three smaller arms with faces worm their way out of adjacent tunnels. His headpiece has the familiar alien queen triceratops shape, and his arms are ribbed. After pummeling his exposed brain (that can’t be healthy), he does what all good video game enemies do after being shot up with bullets: explodes. And so concludes Super Contra. The world is saved, again.




Super C -- Box Art

Super C — Box Art — Fantastic cover; nearly every boss is represented.

Super C
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Featured Platform: NES
Release Date: 1990 (Japan and USA), 1992 (Europe and Australia)
Alternative Titles: Super Contra (Japanese Famicom), Probotector II: Return of the Evil Forces (European and Australian NES)

Super C -- Area 6

Super C — Area 5 — Into the hive

Following the success of Contra for NES, an NES port of Super Contra was a sure bet. And thus, Super C was born in 1990. Unlike Super Contra, Super C has two additional levels spliced between the jungle and hive: a green techno base, and an uphill mountain climb. Following the mountainous level, we’re presented with a short cinematic of our hero entering the hive.

Super C -- Area 6

Super C — Area 6 — More gas mask skulls

To its credit, the NES version’s hive is considerably more attractive than its arcade counterpart, thanks in no small part to a much better defined, and more lush color palette. The floor of the hive is composed of a blue spiral texture, and grey gas mask skulls adorn the walls. Lethal red balls are released from chasms and proceed to home in on the protagonist. Balls and chasms: we’re in Giger territory.

At the far end of the chamber is the final boss from the arcade version. His first form has the familiar triceratops head that we know and love. This time around, his eyes are especially creepy; they follow you as you manoeuvre the screen. Adding to the spooky atmosphere, the walls of the chamber are ribbed, Giger-style. You know what, from now on I’ll just call this style of wall a Giger Wall. After you destroy the boss’ first form, he morphs into a conjoined three-headed monstrosity.

Super C -- Area 6

Super C — Area 6 — Creepiest eyes ever x3

Super C -- Area 7

Super C — Area 7 — Kangaroomorphs

After felling triceratops head (I know, he probably has a real name), you continue onwards to the final hive level. This is an attractive stage; the floor is ribbed, vagina doors and gas mask skulls litter the walls, and xenomorphs run at you in packs. Aliens galore. In an interesting video game gimmick, the final segment before the end boss forces you to maneuver an area where the ceiling continuously drops down on you. Should you survive, you’re greeted with an final boss that looks as if it was spawned from a lovecraftian nightmare. To be honest, this looks nothing like anything from Giger. The creature scuttles around on crab legs, has a giant muscled appendage protruding from its abdomen, and has two connected heads, one is a female face, and the other looks kind of like… Alf. After defeating this hideously awesome creature, you ride off into the sunset in your trusty helicopter.

As I promised, Super C and Super Contra delivered even more gigeresque goodness. The next post may or may not cover Contra III: The Alien Wars and Contra 4. Kind of like eating too much candy, I feel like I’ve consumed an unhealthy amount of Contra. We’ll see if the sugar rush fades before I sit down to write the next installment. Until then, please Like the Xenomorphosis facebook page! Later folks.

Super C -- Stage 7 & Final Boss

Super C — Area 7 & Final Boss

Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of Super C and Super Contra-related images

Necronomiclones: Gigeresque Imagery in Video Games is an ongoing series that covers Swiss artist H.R. Giger’s influence on video game art design.


“It’s time for revenge… Let’s attack aggressively!”

For this first installment of Necronomiclones I’ve decided to cover a series that’s especially fresh in my mind. Namely, the infamous Contra series. Does a better old-school co-op series exist? The answer is no. Everyone worth talking to has a great Contra story to tell. The first time I beat Contra III: The Alien Wars on normal difficulty, it was 3 in the morning and my co-op partner was high on shrooms. Needless to say, Contra is the stuff of basement legends. This entry will explore the gigeresque art design in Contra for arcade and Contra for NES.

Contra (NES) Box Art — I would pay so much money to see this movie.

Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Featured Platforms: Arcade, NES
Release Dates: 1987 (Arcade), 1988 (NES)
Alternative Titles: Gryzor (PAL Arcade), Probotector (PAL NES)

Contra (Arcade) — Stage 1: Jungle — Is it just me, or does that look identical to the pulse rifle from Aliens?

Contra follows the tale of two army commandos, Bill Rizer and Lance Bean, as they take on the Red Falcon Organization. The original japanese version is said to be set in the year 2663 on an island off the coast of New Zealand, whereas the American NES port’s manual establishes the events as taking place in the present day. Because we all know that American NES manuals are about as official as that Star Wars fanfic you wrote in high school, we’ll assume the Japanese version is the more accurate of the two. To put it candidly, Contra is big love letter to American 80s cinema. If Rambo, Predator, and Aliens had a japanese baby, its name would be Contra. In fact, the American NES cover features Schwarzenegger and Stallone posing with a xenomorph.

Contra (Arcade) — Stage 3: Waterfall — Alien boss at top of waterfall

I’ve chosen to cover both the arcade and NES version in tandem because despite having fairly different visual styles, they share nearly identical level layouts. Both games start with our hero flipping shirtless into the jungle. Real men don’t jump, they flip. He then proceeds to fight his way into a base, traverses to the far side of the base, and ends up at the foot of a waterfall. Funny story: after years of playing Contra, I only recently found out from a friend that you can duck the bullets in the base… The first Giger moment presents itself at the top of the waterfall, where a giant alien boss lies in wait. In the arcade version, the alien has two heads, four arms, and is protruding from a metallic structure. Although far from a blatant xenomorph clone, the basic ingredients are all there. In typical Giger fashion, the arms are ribbed, and the jaw is evocative of a xenomorph.

Contra (NES) — Stage 3: Waterfall — Alternative alien boss on top of waterfall

The NES version of the same boss is fairly different looking, but no less gigeresque. Instead of having two heads, its cranium has the same triceratops-like shape as the queen alien in Aliens. One thing’s for certain: its arms are also about as useless looking as the queen alien’s; they flop around in circles while shooting fireballs at the hero. The alien shares another similarity with a xenomorph: it has rod-shaped dorsal fins extending from its back.

Contra (NES) — Stage 8: Alien’s Lair

After killing the alien, our hero explores a second base, a snow field, an energy zone (?), a hangar. and finally, the alien’s lair. As the name would imply, the alien’s lair is essentially a large alien hive. In the NES version, the ceiling is composed of what look like skeletal shapes, and the floor is crisscrossed with red organic matter. Giger would be proud, very proud. Interspersed among the ceiling are pink protrusions that spew out white, fluffy balls that home in on our hero. The pink protrusions look like vaginas with teeth. As you’ll remember from the intro to this series, Giger loved to incorporate sexual imagery into his art. The arcade version of the lair is even more overtly gigeresque. The floor of the chamber consists of bone-like shapes, skulls, and gaping holes that look identical to the vagina doors in Alien’s derelict.

Contra (Arcade) — Stage 8: Alien’s Lair — Mid-boss

Mid-way through the alien chamber, our hero finds himself face-to-face with what can only be described as a massive xenomorph head. In breaking with tradition, the xenomorph has horns distending from its carapace. Spewing from its mouth are small xenos that look as if they’re curled into a fetal position. How cool is that? A massive alien that barfs out smaller aliens.

Contra (NES) — Stage 8: Alien’s Lair — Final Boss

Continuing onward, the hero encounters the final boss in the core of the alien hive. If video games have taught me anything, it’s that every good alien hive is controlled by a massive internal organ. In this case, the organ looks like a giant heart, and is attached to the ceiling and floor by a network of veins and arteries. Defending the heart are a collection of eggs that look identical to those in Alien. And what do these eggs release? Face-huggers. Dozens of face-huggers that pop out and lunge at the hero. Some people are bothered by such obvious plagiarism, but personally I love it. Being the big Aliens fan that I am, I love to see its influence whenever possible.

After killing the heart, our hero is whisked away in a helicopter and the world is saved. One thing I’m still not clear on: why are the terrorists aliens? Doesn’t it seem redundant that a malevolent alien be classified as a terrorist? Evil aliens kill people, that’s what they do. Anyways, the next installment of this series will explore Super Contra and Super C, which contain considerably more gigeresque content than the original Contra. Look forward to it, and enjoy the following gallery that I put together!

Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of Contra-related images