Thursday 29 October 2020

Halloween 2020 - 5 Saturn Games To Get You In The MOOD!

I love Halloween. LOVE IT! I get excited at the end of September, and it is one of the few consolations I have to keep me buoyed up, as as the summer starts to fade and we tumble into Autumn...

As such, it's one of the very few seasons that can get me motivated to "put pen to paper" (so to speak) and whip up an article for the Saturn Junkyard. This is now the fourth year since we resurrected the Yard, so thinking of a set of titles that I've never mentioned in my annual Halloween epistles, is becoming harder and harder. The links between horror and gaming are getting more and more tenuous, the choices of games becoming more and more scarce... My rule of thumb thus far, is that I have to have played the game myself, rather than having simply heard of it, or watched YouTube videos about it. As such, I was going to start waxing lyrical about Frankenstein -Through The Eyes Of  The Monster, or indeed Battle Of The Monsters, but i decided against it. I briefly looked at purchasing the afore mentioned game until I saw it's price tag... I think I will perhaps order a repro copy from the most excellent "Nightwing Productions", so I can perhaps report on it in my Halloween 2021 post.

So, on with this year's journey into the spooky world of  Samhain, where we will rub shoulders with broom riding witches, crazed, blood thirsty monsters,  brooding, growling ogres, antagonistic anal probing (probably) aliens, mutated, maximum security prisoners, demonic despotic prison bosses, howling crazed mental patients and... erm... anthropomorphic needles(!)

Cotton Boomerang: 

WooOoooOoo.... WOOOoooOOO... Are you scared yet? No? Well I'm afraid this first game is merely dipping a green, warty toe into the slime infested swamp of Halloween. What we have here, is an early   evening, pre-watershed, kid-friendly "cute 'em up" - in other words, a cute, cartoony, side scrolling shmup. The Halloween link comes from the fact, that rather than controlling a spaceship or WWII fighter plane, you control a witch on a broomstick... See? We're getting there... A cute witch... who isn't scary at all, but a witch, nevertheless... 

The Cotton franchise is a series of multi-platform titles, developed by Tokyo based developers "Success Corporation", making it's debut in 1991 with Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams, with the Saturn release of Cotton Boomerang arriving in 1998. The game consists of piloting your witch and her broomstick, through a series of magical and haunted worlds, battling mythical creatures, while all manner of projectiles -  crystals, power ups and even Jack O' Lantern pumpkin heads - fly towards you. As well as your ability to fire regular or hyper-powered shots, you can switch between characters, each of which has different styles, attributes and abilities.

 Despite it's cute visuals and cartoonish outlook, Cotton is not an easy ride. Fortunately, as is often the case with games of this genre, there are a plethora of 'continues' to access, and you should be able to progress nicely through each charming level, soaking up the magic of this ghoulishly charming game...


Now hold on there Father! Are you having a laugh? Gex is a 90's, 'Tude-fest, TV themed action platformer! What on earth does that have to do with the spookiest time of the year????

Yes... I know, I know... I'm stretching it... but as I said, I have to have played each title -  and whilst my Saturn collection is fairly large - finding five horror themed titles that I hadn't considered before on these very pages, was becoming rather difficult. Fortunately, during Gex's rather long and drawn out back-story, it becomes apparent that the stereotypically wise-cracking, Star Trek impersonating Gecko is watching a horror movie as he is zapped into the television, by the evil Rez. The object of each level is to find hidden TV remote controls, and by doing so, progress to the next... 

Therefore! As we delve into the hub world of the game, we are treated to a level which is incredibly suitable for a bit of Halloween Saturn fun. We are in a graveyard, a suitably murky palette of colours and creepy zombie ducks(?) lumbering slowly towards you, arms out-stretched in classic undead style... 

Gex was developed by Crystal Dynamics for the 3DO and ported to the Saturn in 1996. Critical reception for the games was good and the game is an entertaing platformer with a very satisying gameplay and a large dollop of humour, thanks to the character of Gex which was voiced by comedian Dana Gould. 

As Gex, the bad ass, fun loving reptilian, you must wall walk, tail spin and bounce your way through the level, flicking out your tongue and munching golden flies... and that's it! I cannot tell you about any of the other levels, as I have consistently failed to find any of the remotes and therefore, have never progressed beyond the spooky horror themed hub world... therefore I always think of Gex as a spooky title. Good job really, as my selection this year was a bit thin on the ground, as mentioned earlier...

So... moving on swiftly, it's about time we ramped up the fear factor. Let's get to something a little less juvenile and a bit more adult oriented. Ladies and germs I bring you... 


This is a strange one. A two disc opus, brought to us by Warp, again originally developed  for the 3DO in 1999. The game is more of an interactive movie and features the protagonist and "digital actor" Laura, who featured in a number of games by Warp, In this one, Laura finds out her father, a respected medical practitioner, has gone insane and murdered all of his patients. As Laura, you must enter the hospital to investigate what has happened. As soon as she walks through the door, her world begins to morph and mutate and she finds herself in a gothic looking building, with strange instruments of torture and mutilated bodies scattered around.

The mood is dark and mysterious, Strange events, psychedelic visions, shifting dimensions and surreal happenings are triggered as you move through the building. You have two hours to complete the game, with no opportunities to save. 

Whilst the game is interesting and atmospheric, it is far from linear, and can be very difficult to navigate easily to the end of the experience. You might find yourself, as I did, struggling to progress at pace, finding yourself wandering and backtracking fruitlessly. Although I liked what I saw, it was not enough to keep me going, and after an hour or so, I became frustrated and bored. Watching a walkthrough video would not be conducive to the "search and reveal" nature of the game, but by the same token, unless I get some hints, the experience will stagnate and dissipate. Perhaps that is the most horrific element of the game. Certainly the biggest nightmare I faced within it's clutches...

So, from one moody gothic mansion to another... this time you're really going to be scared. In fact you're going to...


There's not much of a backstory here. You find yourself in a dark and foreboding castle. Outside, as glimpsed through the arched gothic windows, black clouds race across a deep purple sky. The dark, dank corridors and subterranean dungeons are patrolled by a variety of foes including gun wielding "grunts" and hammer wielding ogres... there are health, armour, weapon and ammo pick ups scattered throughout the levels. The scares come from the enemies, who pop up and attack you when you are least expecting it...

Developed by Lobotomy Software, the Saturn version of Quake was the first console release of the popular PC first person shooter. The game utilises the SlaveDriver engine, first developed for the excellent Powerslave/Exhumed/1999. As such, this is not so much a port as a game built from the ground up...

The Saturn version boasts an exclusive hazard (the void) and an exclusive, very un-FPS unlockable -  "Dank and Scuzz - a voice acted story set within the Quake world. The game has been oft praised for the textures, colours and lighting effects, which to some extent surpass the original. The brutal Nine Inch Nails provide the soundtrack, which is unsurprisingly dark, menacing and drive the game forward.

This one really IS a good one for the Halloween season and like it's cousin Powerslave, is a quality title which fits the mood of the season perfectly...

 Area 51:

Not too long ago, in a pre-Covid world, gangs of slightly insane nerds, gathered at the US military installation known as Area 51, poised to do "Naruto runs" headlong towards the armed military guards, with the hopeless intention of busting in, and subsequently seeing the alien bodies and captured saucers that have been held there since the greys crash landed into the Roswell desert in 1947...

Thanks to Atari Games, Saturn light gun enthusiasts do not have to compromise their personal safety, in order to observe the interior of the Groom Lake facility. All they have to do, is load up this title, pick up their Stunner and get ready to go... 

In a matter of seconds, all the aliens in the facility will start to jump out in front of you in order for you to shoot! How very accommodating of them! Seriously though, this is not a bad game. It has it's roots in the arcade and whilst it is no Virtua Cop, it far outstrips last year's offering Corpse Killer! 

You are a member of the STAAR (Special Tactical Advanced Alien Response) Team, along with your colleagues Lieutenant Stephanie Grant and Sergeant Major Marcus Bradley, you are tasked with activating a nuclear self destruct button... 

Hang on a minute??? Who the hell is going to sign up for that??? 

As well as aliens, you are also faced with mutated zombie soldiers, meaning it conveniently gets a pass for our Halloween selection... the presentation is better than our other Halloween light gun favourite, House Of The Dead and this is a better graphical spectacle, utilising digitized video - enemies, innocents and explosions are 2D digitized sprites. The vehicles and levels are pre-rendered 3D. I'm saying that like I have a clue what it means, when in reality I just nicked it all from Wikipedia. 

Overall, the game is a winner, and if you've had enough HOTD for one year, you should definitely give it a blast!

So there we have it... Five titles that will take us through till, this time next year, when I will have invested in some proper horror titles to report on! 

*( Last minute honourable mention goes to Loaded... a top down 2D shooter, based around a maximum security prison. I'd always thought it was a bit shit, but having persevered, I have to say I rather like it!

Put it down as next year's first on the list...) 

Sunday 26 July 2020

Five Platform Games On The Saturn Which Still Hold Up In 2020

Do you ever start something and think to yourself; "I really don't know what I'm doing here..."? Well I think that is the starting point for this brief consideration of platform games on the Saturn. As I started, I realised I didn't really have the exhaustive knowledge necessary to write this article, that I was unaware of all examples of the genre available for our 32 Bit obsession, and that I hadn't even played any of these games sufficiently to actually pass judgement on them.

SO - please look upon this written passage as a way for you to dip your toe in the waters of Saturn platforming, rather than an exhaustive deep dive into the ocean of up and down, left to right and occasional back and forth...

My initial consideration was about the exact type of game I should include... should I include games such as Sonic 3D, NiGHTS or Burning Rangers? Should I include Castlevania or Metal Slug - both of which contain platforming elements - the directional side to side and up & down movement, being integral to both games? Should I include Clockwork Knight - (by far my most played Saturn platformer, but also one which I had highlighted before?) In order to cover myself on all fronts, let's just re-brand this article as "5 Platform Games On The Saturn (Part 1)" implying there will be careful consideration of other games in the future!

Okay, caveat over, we'll dive straight in...

Friday 26 June 2020

Modern Controllers on the Saturn and Dreamcast: Early Impressions of the Brook Wingman SD

Let’s just get this out of the way: the original, Japanese-style Saturn gamepad is one hell of a controller. It’s easily one of the greatest ever crafted…for 2D games.

When it comes to 3D, the Sega Saturn’s pedigree is considerably more complicated. Sega’s initial attempt at an analog controller – the 3D control pad – was a perfectly serviceable, albeit rough-around-the-edges attempt at giving Saturn players a handle on the third dimension. But it worked well enough. As an early showpiece title for the controller, NiGHTS into Dreams drew us in with its vibrant, imaginative worlds and addicting score attack premise. Yet it was our seamless connection to the game’s smooth and blistering flow – thanks largely to the 3D control pad – that cemented Sonic Team’s soaring jester simulator among the Saturn’s most beloved and iconic games. At the very least, it was clear that analog controls were our future.
Unfortunately, like most other consumer products of the 1990s, those original 3D control pads were not made to last forever. After two and a half decades of wear and tear, their fraying rubber membranes and wobbly analog sticks are slowly becoming more rules than exceptions. Inevitably, there will be a day when our passion for 3D Saturn games like NiGHTS will outlive our ability to fully play them as intended on original hardware. In the meantime, we’ll just have to enjoy our ratty old 3D controllers while they last…

That is, unless we had a viable alternative.

It’s not for a lack of trying. A couple of years ago, Retro-Bit announced plans to produce its own aftermarket 3D Saturn gamepads. The company has since released its well-received interpretation of Sega’s original 2D Japanese-style pad, yet its 3D analog models ostensibly lie in design stasis. Earlier this year, Retro Fighters launched its BrawlerGen controller for the Genesis and Saturn. With any luck, I hoped it would be the silver bullet that saves the Saturn from an apocalyptic, 3D controller-deprived future.
It wasn’t.

The BrawlerGen’s form factor feels reasonably ergonomic and it sports an analog stick for directional input but it completely lacks analog functionality. Disappointingly, its analog stick simply mimics the d-pad’s eight-way digital input without any of the pressure-sensitive, omni-directional functionality of the original 3D pad. The BrawlerGen is still a useful controller – especially for some Genesis games and non-analog 3D Saturn titles like the original Panzer Dragoon – but it hardly remedies the Saturn’s scarcity of analog controller options.

So here we are. Unlike Retro-Bit and Retro Fighters, gaming peripheral manufacturer Brook has taken a wildly different approach to alleviating that scarcity. Instead of a brand new controller, Brook’s Wingman Converter SD is a controller adapter dongle that lets players use an array of modern gamepads and arcade sticks on both the Saturn and Dreamcast. The company sent me an early unit to test out and write about, so I tested it and now I am writing about it.

So how does it work?
As it turns out, pretty damn well…with plenty of caveats.

The Wingman Converter SD promises wireless and wired compatibility with a variety of modern first party controllers, including the PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Switch, and others. It took me a while to get some of them to sync consistently and ultimately, some worked better than others. Granted, most of the PS4 and Xbox One controllers I own are early launch-era models so it’s possible the Wingman simply doesn’t play nice with those older gamepads. At one point, Brook's website also suggested the Wingman would be compatible with some modern arcade sticks. Unfortunately, I don’t own any so I wasn’t able to test them. I’ll also note that I’m using an early pre-production Wingman SD unit so it’s possible – even likely – that some of the issues I mention here will be ironed out before release or via future firmware updates. Hell, even as I've been using this adapter, Brook has already issued a couple of updates which cleaned up some earlier issues I experienced considerably.

After syncing various modern gamepads via their respective USB charging cables (not included), I noticed some fairly major differences in their performance. For instances, my launch Xbox One controller (non-Bluetooth model) felt like it had very little dead zone in its analog stick and was a bit too sensitive, making it more difficult to finesse directional movements. The Switch Pro Controller works reasonably well with the Wingman but because its shoulder buttons (ZL and ZR) lack analog sensitivity, it poses obvious problems for driving games which rely on pressure-sensitive acceleration and braking. That left me with a newer DualShock 4 (Model #CUH-ZCT2U) which I primarily used wirelessly with the Wingman SD. For the purposes of sharing my impressions here, I’m going to focus on my experiences with particular controller.
Playing Dreamcast games with a DualShock: Heresy? Sure, but it’s heresy that works.

Despite some of the quirks I mentioned earlier, the Wingman SD has a great deal of potential to turn modern gamepads into fully functional alternatives for playing 3D games on Sega’s penultimate and swansong platforms. After syncing it with the Wingman, my DualShock 4 worked wirelessly on both consoles with little fuss. Overall, it feels solid where it needs to: it’s highly responsive while adding no discernible lag. Most crucially for games like Burning Rangers and NiGHTS, the PS4’s analog stick supports a full range of granular directional inputs that I’d expect from the original 3D control pad. The trigger buttons also share a comparable range of motion and pressure sensitivity, which is critical for racing games like Manx TT and Sega Rally Championship.

I hesitate to say the Wingman SD and DualShock 4 work better than the original Saturn 3D control pad, but at the very least, it’s a damn fine alternative. There are a couple of Saturn games I feel the Wingman SD works especially well with: Power Slave/Exhumed and Sonic R. Honestly, a lot of this may come down to the DualShock 4’s smoother and more resistant analog stick. It provides a more stable and nuanced feel for these games that is less finicky than Sega’s official 3D pad. Combine that with a more ergonomic formfactor, I really do think the Wingman/DS4 will be my preferred way to play many of these games going forward.

Additionally, the Wingman SD supports button remapping and turbo functions, which is particularly useful as the default face button assignments don't always intuitively between the Saturn and PS4 controllers. As far as I can tell, you can’t swap the analog sticks to map physical movement to the right stick (I’ll get into that in a bit). But with a few button combinations outlined in the instruction manual/website, I was able to remap the face and shoulder buttons fairly easily.
In case you’re wondering how the default button mapping works for using a DualShock 4 with Saturn games, the Wingman assigns X, Y, and Z, to square, triangle, and L1 and A, B, and C to cross, circle, and R1, respectively. This set up works well for most 3D games I’ve tried so far, though I wouldn’t recommend it for games which require equal access to all six face buttons. Honestly, you’ll still want to keep those 2D Saturn pads and arcade sticks handy for shmups, fighting games, etc.

OK, now let’s talk about the Dreamcast because that’s where the Wingman SD will have some extra value. For all of Sega’s groundbreaking and forward-thinking accomplishments, its failure to include a second thumbstick on its Dreamcast controller was almost comically shortsighted. Some developers attempted to design around this by mapping physical movement (forward/backward/strafing) to the Dreamcast controller's face buttons. This was an admirable attempt that worked to the benefit of 3D shooters like Fur Fighters, MDK2, Slave Zero, Quake III Arena, Outtrigger. That said, it was hardly a great, let alone perfect solution.

To that end, the Wingman SD manages to give players a little taste of how dual analog support might have worked on the Dreamcast. Surprisingly enough, it kind of does a solid job at it.

I say “kind of” because neither the Wingman SD nor modern controllers are not going to miraculously convert digital A/B/X/Y inputs into full analog directional inputs. However, they will let players functionally use the left stick for aiming and the right stick for basic eight-way movement for any action/shooting games with those mapping options. For those aforementioned games I’ve tested so far, it works surprisingly well. Unfortunately, the Wingman lets you remap the face and shoulder buttons but not the analog sticks, which means I was basically stuck with a southpaw configuration for my faux dual stick set up. If that’s your preference and/or you’re able to adjust to it (I eventually was), it works reasonably well.
There’s also another Dreamcast-specific feature I should mention. Unlike other controller converters (e.g. the Total Control products) the Wingman SD does not have a VMU port on the unit itself (you can load one from a second controller). However, the unit does function as its own built-in memory card with a full 200 blocks for game saves. For those familiar with Brook’s earlier PS3/PS4-to-Dreamcast Super Converter adapter, which only had a few dozen blocks of memory, the Wingman SD is a notable improvement.

Well, that’s pretty much all I have to say about the Wingman SD for now. Overall, it's an ambitious peripheral and I've encountered plenty of quirks and issues during my time with it. Regardless, the Wingman is a nifty little adapter that I see myself using fairly often going forward. As our older analog sticks grow looser and wobblier – and as Saturn 3D pads become rarer and more expensive – we’ll need solutions like this to keep enjoying those classic 3D games on original hardware. For its part, the Wingman largely succeeds.

The Brook Wingman Converter SD is scheduled to release in mid-July for $49.99.


Thanks for reading -- You can find me on Twitter (@VirtuaSchlub) where I post about random video game musings as well as occasional Junkyard write ups and podcasts.

Sunday 29 March 2020

The Panzer Dragoon Remake: Flying Blind Through Familiar Skies

I’ve always been sympathetic to, and even charmed by Sega’s mid-‘90s transitional struggles. For a time, the company was caught perpetually off guard as the industry conventions it had relied on (and indeed, helped define) crumbled amidst a swift generational shift. Sega adapted, more or less. It eventually forged its own creative renaissance that continues to endear the company to many of us today, even if it was ultimately a victim of that sea change.

In my mind, no game exemplified that precarious phase more than the original Panzer Dragoon. As something of a killer app in the Sega Saturn’s early days, the original title stands as a cult classic, particularly by association with its offspring. Fans maintain an enduring fondness for the original Panzer Dragoon, of course, but it remains even better known for kicking off a remarkable and criminally underappreciated gaming franchise.

For its part, the original Panzer Dragoon was a timid first step in a bold new direction. It navigated a generational chasm between a familiar arcade-action framework and the unbound possibilities of 3D gaming. Between them, Panzer Dragoon took a contorted middle path. It utilized the third dimension to great artistic and mechanical effect, hoisting players atop a majestic dragon and immersing them in a 360˚ perspective as they locked lasers with fantastical beasts in a mysterious, post-apocalyptic setting. Those concepts contributed to a distinct vision and tone that felt entirely new. However, several of the game's structural aspects – like its rigidly linear pathways, finite life/continue counts, and lack of upgrades or progression systems – did not.

The game is about dragons, after all, so in those terms the original Panzer Dragoon was like a young fledgling: confined to well-trodden ground despite its loftier ambitions for flight. With later installments, the series would grow its wings, evolve with more modern conventions, and soar with a swagger to match its ambition.

But now, 25 years later, developer MegaPixel Studio and publisher Forever Entertainment return us to that young fledgling via the Nintendo Switch (for now, with PC and other platforms eventually).

At face value, the Panzer Dragoon remake basically does what it promises. It lets me hop back into the dragon’s saddle and guides me through the linear pathways and familiar locales from the original game. Homing lasers in tow, I again blast the waves of monsters surrounding me. The remake largely succeeds in replicating the basic structure of Panzer Dragoon, no doubt, but it overlooks many of the things which defined its novel vision in the first place. At no point does the Panzer Dragoon remake ever make a compelling case for why it really needed to exist.

Thursday 20 February 2020

Sonic The Movie - Did It Suck???


Okay first things first, there's something we need to get out of the way before we start. I was always going to love this movie. I love Sega. I love Sonic. I love anything that celebrates, promotes or endorses  either. I'm an unrepentant fanboy.A movie about Sega's mascot in 2020 did not seem very likely a few years ago, as Sonic's decline seemed to be as meteoric as Mario's ascent. Beloved of Retro-gamers in the US and recognised by even the most ardent of non-gamers, Mario could do no wrong. Nintendo seemed to get all the love in the 21st century - the DS, the Wii and the Switch have all been a smash. Every Mario game is hailed as a classic and a plethora of games featuring supporting characters like Luigi, Kirby, Wario and even the lizard guy, all seem to be met with both critical and commercial success. 

We Are Back!

After an extended hiatus, we are back! Praise Segata!