SNES REVIEW – PHANTOM 2040 (1995)

The game has good multi-layered scrolling effects, such as these roaming parrots flying behind the foreground ...
The game has good multi-layered scrolling effects, such as these roaming parrots flying behind the foreground …

The Phantom 2040 cartoon series from 1994 is perhaps one of the lesser known Phantom comic character outings, but it stands out as one of the best, thanks to its intelligent plots and bizarre character designs (props to Æon Fluxcreator Peter Chung).  The show ran for only two seasons, but spawned one of the most undeservedly overlooked platformers of the era, the titular Phantom 2040 for the SNES (which also had versions released on the Genesis and Game Gear systems).

What makes the game stand out?  Sure, it has tight controls, unique weapons, and smooth animations ala Flashback, but what else?  How about Metroidvania style levels with multiple ways to complete them, and a branching story that leads to differing twists and over 20 unique endings based on how your progress through the game?  Yes, 20 endings, and while you may not get them all, you’ll definitely be starting over after completing the game to take that missed pathway, and then the next one, and then the next one, and so on until you simply can’t remember which ones you took and didn’t take.

The Inductance Rope tool lets you scale walls, swing from the ceiling, and get to those hard-to-reach places ...
The Inductance Rope tool lets you scale walls, swing from the ceiling, and get to those hard-to-reach places …

On it’s surface, the game plays like a smoother Another World crossed with any ol’ platform shooter, letting you blast, jump, and power up your way through the future city of Metropia on a quest to stop corruption and crime.  But soon enough you’ll realize that you’re in for more of a Metroid experience, thanks to the  Inductance Rope too that lets you scale walls and swing from the ceiling ala Bionic Commando. You’ll be scouting out how to get that difficult-to-reach power up, and you’ll find yourself using the city map between levels to re-visit previous locations to open up more areas thanks to newly acquired items.  Speaking of items, while many are weapons, there are some unique ones in there, such as pellets that you can drop to douse local flames.  You can build quite a hefty arsenal if you put the time in, and most items are worth playing around with, even if not required to progress.

The story is told through illustrated cut scenes, occasionally launching into animated full-screen affairs that show the wonder of the SNES’s later days.  Like the show it’s based on, the game’s story has more variety and flair than most of it’s ilk, and I found myself checking out the Peter Chung-designed weirdos portraits for a while before I even read the next plot reveal.

Gotta love a good animated cutscene ...
Gotta love a good animated cutscene …

Where Phantom 2040 succeeds in gameplay, story, atmosphere, and variety, it lets down a little in the sound department.  None of the music or effects are overtly terrible, but everything from the digitized shout on a new-game start to the enemies’ explosions seem somehow muted, like a collection of great audio clips were neutered on their way through production into mere adequate fair.  The graphics are the opposite, however; while the Phantom and some humanoid enemies seem to stand too erect and walk too stiff-legged, the animations and rendering on everything else is worth studying.

In the end, I can’t recommend Phantom 2040 enough; I’ve beat it, but I haven’t finished playing it, and is there any better compliment you can pay a game?

PHANTOM2040_SNES SCORECARD

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INDIE SPOTLIGHT: Inquisitor (PC) – The Child of Bauldur’s Gate and Diablo Gets Brutal

The Character Creation Screen only hints at the overwhelming number of spells and skills the game offers ...
The Character Creation Screen only hints at the overwhelming number of spells and skills the game offers …

Do you love Bauldur’s Gate like a fat kid loves cake? Do you love Diablo like a dingo loves babies?

If that last joke was too much for you, then I hesitate to recommend Cinemax’s 2012 isometric hack ‘n slash Inquisitor. Not because it’s a bad game–far from it. Rather, I hesitate because some of the material is quite rough compared to its famous brethren.  Take the first quest you come across, which involves a rare antiquities dealer having been killed via a throat-slicing in the local inn’s attic room.  Gruesome, but nothing compared to the descriptions from the townsfolk, which advise you that his “manhood” was severed and shoved into the corpse’s open mouth.  Yikes.

Most of the game is less shocking, although the thread of religious zeal running through it can be disconcerting (you are a member of the Inquisition, after all.) The game-world is much like a Bauldur’s Gate clone, but the theology gives it a uniqueness missing from the regular D&D fodder, which is a plus.  Also a plus is the excellent and almost H.R. Giger-esque artwork and User Interface templates, which really put the game heads and shoulders above a lot of Indie fare. Inquisitor clearly isn’t the work of a one man operation, and it feels like a worthy full-price package.

The in-game artwork is stunning, and some screens had me simply staring ...
The in-game artwork is stunning, and some screens had me simply staring …

There have been some less than glowing reviews, though, and they aren’t without merit.  The combat and character animation is not up to contemporary snuff, though the sprites and pre-rendered backgrounds themselves look good (keep an eye out for special touches, like the barely swaying dead tree, or the smoldering dungeon lantern.)

The combat, at first, also seems suspect.  You’ll find yourself hitting “R” to set your character to run, and think that it’s not working.  It is, though–your character is just, that, slow.  But give the game fifteen minutes or so, and you’ll be right at home.  fis not the kind of RPG hack-fest that feeds you level boosts enough to max out your stats easily; instead, Inquisitor would rather make you work for it, and hard.  Tease out enemies, picking them off one at a time, until eventually you’re powerful enough to wipe out that orc camp.  Then come to the next enemy type, and learn those same tactics and spells are akin to hurling peanuts at an elephant.

Click for carnage, friends ...
Click for carnage, friends …

It’s difficulty makes combat and ultimate victory extremely satisfying, though. When you clear another level of a dungeon, you’ll feel the rush of accomplishment.  The dungeons are brutally deep, however, and with precious few shortcuts back to town, you’ll find yourself trudging back to town on a long campaign more than you want to.

That brings to mind the enemy respawning system, which is actually quite fair.  You’ll never face an entire roomful of enemies resurrected from the dead once vanquished, but there will be one or two straggling enemies that consistently pop up when passing through familiar territory.  This can be helpful when you are looking for that little bit of extra experience to gain that next level (during which you regain your health, mana, and stamina).

The dungeons here are deep.  DEEP deep ...
The dungeons here are deep. DEEP deep …

Yes, in addition to health and mana, which operate ala Diablo, your character also needs stamina in order to attack, cast spells, or do damn near anything but walk/run.  This valuable reserve replenishes very slowly, so you’ll enjoy the bottled variety almost as much as the mana and life giving potions.  Believe me, you’ll spend nearly an entire dungeon’s haul in gold on health potions.

The good news about that, then, is that your character can hold a ton of loot.  You’ll need that space, too, not just for potions, but for the copious amounts of equipment, much of which will break and require repair after a few good battles.  There are three sets of equipment that you can equip and cycle through, also, so you can waltz around loaded to the gills with goods.

Another major component of Inquisitor that sets it apart from other isometric action RPG’s is the torture system.  Yes, I said torture.  As a member of the Inquisition, you’ll be tasked with finding out who is a sinful heretic, gathering evidence to arrest them, and then torturing them to worm out a confession.  It’s a nice and gruesome feature, and if you end up torturing an innocent victim, you’ll move out of the good and godly alignment and farther towards the dark side.  Your place on the alignment scale will alter the game, so pick your path well.

Hmm ... A talking stone head; Fallout, anyone?
Hmm … A talking stone head; Fallout, anyone?

There are also little touches that are unique, such as the green genie boxes you’ll find occasionally.  They are excellent additions that add strategy to tough battles, as you can break one whenever you wish, summoning a genie to do something wonderful for you.  It will give you money, let you shop in it’s ethereal store mid-dungeon, or wipe out your enemies.  Time breaking open the box right, and the genie will smite any nearby enemies and then grant you your desired perk, which is a great help.  You can also tell the genie you don’t need anything, and they’ll be surprised, giving you a random perk as varied as money or a permanent +1 to stats.

The writing is also tops, exceeding in both quantity and depth Diablo III and it’s ilk.  And you’ll have to talk to the plentiful NPC’s that abound, if you want to get the facts as to who the real heretics are.  You’ll even have options to try and trick some enemies into becoming allies, or at least into not hacking you to bits.

Be prepared to read. Alot. But don't worry, it's worth it!
Be prepared to read. Alot. But don’t worry, it’s worth it!

As the length of this Indie Spotlight may suggest, I’ve fallen madly in love with Inquisitor.  It has kept me up long nights, and I can’t wait to get back to it.  Buy the digital game on GoG.com for plenty of extras, too, like an Inquisitor novel and the soundtrack, the latter of which is great background music for your next pen-and-paper D&D game (you know you want to.)

All in all, I state with certainty that, if you yearn for an in-depth classic RPG with a Bauldur’s Gate/Diablo feel, then spend the $14.99 to get it (on Steam and DRM-free at GoG.com). If you’re a cheapskate, keep an eye out on GoG for one of their million sales, and you’ll be able to score Inquisitor for a ten-spot or less, which is so good a deal that it should be a sin.

INDIE SPOTLIGHT_Inquisitor_SCORE CARD

GAMEBOY ADVANCE REVIEW – TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (2003)

Gotta love the attention to details, like the TCRI neon sign ...
Gotta love the attention to details, like the TCRI neon sign …

GBAcartAw, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Great comics, great cartoons, (mostly) great movies, and great games.  Where most licensed games are, at best, adequately playable, Turtles games include not only some of the best within that category, but also some of the best console games period.  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game for the NES and Turtles in Time for the SNES are the most well-known, and were excellent beat ’em ups.  This is no surprise, since Konami made them after having cut their teeth with The Adventures of Bayou Billy for the NES, and afterword followed up the above TMNT games with the arcade hits X-Men, The Simpsons, and Bucky O’Hare.

            While Turtles in Time is generally considered the pinnacle of TMNT beat ’em up joy, Konami hasn’t stopped making good Turtles games.  To check the truth of this statement, I took a look at Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from 2003 for the Game Boy Advance.  Inspired by the slightly darker and (arguably too) “edgy” 2003 cartoon series (not to be confused with the original 1987 run or the current 2012 Nickelodeon series), the first GBA Turtles title looks to be a classic beat ’em up meant to satisfy your Turtles in Time cravings.  Play a few seconds of the game, though, and you’ll see that this brawler is actually a sidescroller without any of the Final Fight-esque foreground/background depth of movement allowed.

Some areas allow you to take alternate routes ...
Some areas allow you to take alternate routes …

It still feels like a brawler in that vein, however, as it throws waves of enemies at you during bouts of locked screens.  Bobbing arrows direct you to take occasionally diverging paths, and the backgrounds are definitely fitting of the TV show.  So are the enemies, which range from mousers to purple dragons, and even Casey Jones in the classic Raph-meets-Casey-and-they-beat-the-crud-out-of-each-other story.  That brings up the character graphics for the Turtles, themselves, which are a little mixed.  At times, the Turtles actually look a little worse than the enemies, and it seems that the developers started the Turtle sprites by taking screen captures from the actual show, then modeled around them.  This may not be true, but it would explain the excessive artifacting of their characters.  The animations of the Turtles’ attacks are great, though, and make up for their slightly blurry appearance.

Each turtle has some unique touches, like Raph’s ability to scale walls with his sai …

Each turtle has a normal attack, a jump attack, a special attack, and a power up attack that you can charge by Each turtle has some unique touches, like Raph’s ability to scale walls with his sai …holding down a shoulder button.  Hold it too long, and your Turtle will apparently hemorrhage, reducing them to a shivering, panting easy target for a few seconds.  The spaz-out is by far the coolest animation, and I urge you to do it every time you’re waiting for another wave of foes.  The foes are relatively easy, though I did have to hit continue (of which you have infinite) every few screens and during some boss fights.

Rather than following a traditional beat ’em up plot, where you can select your favorite character and lead them through a single storyline, this title chooses instead to give each of the four turtles their own mini-plot.  Leo searches out the source of the mousers, Raph fights Casey Jones, etc.  Some reviewers have lamented the limiting of certain levels to certain Turtles, but I found the multi-story approach welcome, as the stories act as great intros to the core tales of the TMNT mythos.  The cut scenes use static backgrounds with static characters moving in and out as they dive into the conversation, and do their part admirably.  The writing is in keeping with the show, but could’ve used a little more charm.

The game starts with an intro culled and cut down from the show, and looks and sounds good for the GBA.  The in-game music and sound effects are alright, occasionally rising up to remind you of the great SNES Turtles in Time tracks, though they never reach that excellence.

Vehicle-based minigames and toy placements abound ...
Vehicle-based minigames and toy placements abound …

The truly unique thing about this ’03 GBA outing that sets it apart from its fellow sidescrollers and beat ’em ups is the minigame levels.  These are stuck between the main sidescrolling levels, and include things like a rail-shooting Sewer Shark-style segment with Leo piloting the Sewer Slider, an Excitebike-style motorcycle race with Raph on the Shell Cycle, a sewer skateboarding section ala Sonic 2‘s special stages featuring Mikey, and a sidescrolling shooter with Donny hooked up to a glider.  Clearly, Konami did their best to put in plugs for Turtle toys like the Sewer Slider and Shell Cycle, but the Thrashin’ Mikey and Air TMNT figures hadn’t been designed or released yet, leaving Mikey and Donny to use generic gear for their minigames.  The minigames are a welcome addition, although some (like Leo’s) seem a bit overlong.  However, if I were twelve years old and stuck on the school bus, I’d have been more than happy to sink the time into them.

Overall, the game is good.  It’s a little bit original NES Turtles and a little bit Turtles II, and with the minigames, that’s more than enough value to merit a play.GBAcart

TMNT03_GBA SCORE CARD