The Foundation for the House That West Built – Turbografx-16 – Splatterhouse – 1990

Splatterhouse (USA)-0000.pngSplatterhouse
Turbografx-16
Namco
Genre: Horror Beat-em-up
1990

Despite some dabbling into the series, the Splatterhouse games have flown low on my radar for a while. There’s nothing in particular that has kept me from them. I played them a bit as a kid, but the only one I’ve played through was the reboot that came out a few years ago. It’s always been interesting to me but for a few reasons, it kept getting brushed aside for other franchises.

The strange part is that Splatterhouse has a myriad of elements I enjoy. The protagonist is a buff hockey-mask wearing figure, the story has elements of Lovecraft and slasher films, and it falls right into my retro wheelhouse. The excessive violence, even having been toned down before being released on American consoles, would have been right at home alongside games like Night Trap and Mortal Kombat during the creation of the ESRB ratings and trials. The only thing keeping me from playing through the entire series was a lack of a Turbografx-16 growing up.

In an attempt to take a look back at the system and its library, I knew Splatterhouse would have to be one of my first stops due to how long the title’s been sitting in my backlog. Since the series has fallen into obscurity despite a relatively successful revival back in 2010, I thought it could be fun to check on the beginning of the series and how it evolved, not to mention how it holds up now. Continue reading

Crush Pinball Series – An Overview

Alien Crush (U)-0000.pngAlien Crush
TurboGrafx-16
Compile / NEC / NAXAT Soft
Genre: Sci-Fi Pinball
1989

Alien Crush (U)-0004.pngThe basic premise of Alien Crush is that you, as the pinball player, are fighting back against the aliens inhabiting the table. Spanning across two levels, the table is fairly basic, though there is always something to look at considering the art style is heavily inspired by H.R. Giger, notably having worked on the creatures of the Alien films. Still, the table is about as sparse for player control as it gets with a pair of flippers at the bottom of each screen.

With some luck, however, the player can end up in one of the many bonus rounds. While each bonus round takes place in the same structured room, the objective shifts with targets such as a large alien worm whose segments must be destroyed by directing the ball into certain areas of the room to open eyes that are part of the table. The more segments, eyes and other targets the player manages to destroy before the ball winds up back on the base table, the more bonus points they get.

 

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Along with the regular features of most pinball machines like multipliers and special areas to hit to rack up points, the game has a couple of spots that the ball can be hit into that will “reset” the round, banking the points that the player has received so far but giving them a fresh lease on gaining more when the interactive features start to pile up. It’s a little jarring at first since it seems like you’ve lost a ball just for playing the game, but after a while, it turns into a nice breather since the bankable areas aren’t tough to hit.

Alien Crush has a few interesting features despite having a fairly basic table setup. Players can choose one of two music tracks to play while the game is playing- Lunar Eclipse or Demon’s Undulate. Both are well-composed tracks that lend a different feel to the game. The speed of the ball can also be chosen at the beginning, offering a Fast or Slow option as a substitution for Normal and Easy mode. Even on “Fast”, though, the game can be pretty forgiving. The last- and possibly most interesting for the time- is that Alien Crush has an ending. It’s not a great ending- there are explosions and you are told you are the greatest player- and according to some research, it can take anywhere between 10 and 40 hours of gameplay to reach so it’s probably not worth exploring. It’s still a novel way to end a pinball game for the time.


Alien Crush (U)-0005.pngGraphically and aurally, the game holds up really well, especially considering it is a 30-year old game. The backing track can become a little mind-numbing after a while but not in a negative way. It just feels a bit “featureless” after some time with the game. Both tracks are still quality 16-bit tunes, though, and they complement the colorful-but-foreboding visuals well.

If you’re a fan of pinball games, Alien Crush is a surprisingly fun and addictive entry into the genre. It’s not the most innovative game now and it’s hard to think of a way to justify a full retail price for the title at any given time (as it can be with most single table pinball titles), but it’s an above-average game in its own right and deserves a look if you want to nab it either physically or on the Playstation Network for PS3 and PSP.

Devil's Crush (U)-0005.pngDevil’s Crush
TurboGrafx-16
Compile / NEX / NAXAT Soft
Genre: Dark Fantasy Pinball
1990

Devil's Crush (U)-0010.pngA year later, the same folks would put together another digital pinball game by the name of Devil’s Crush. While the original had a science-fiction bent, immersing the player in a battle against alien creatures destroying them and their allies for points, Devil’s Crush approaches from a fantasy base. Instead of intergalactic invaders, the developers decided to pepper their second title in the Crush Pinball series with skeletons, cults, and skulls.

At the heart of pinball games, you can only change so much while retaining the feel of working with an actual pinball machine. Devil’s Crush takes some steps in the right direction for improvement, though. First and foremost, there are three levels to the table instead of two. By sheer table space, it’s already a larger game than Alien Crush. The first level resembles the breaching of a castle wall, complete with enemies littering the landscape. In the middle, a castle with a number of gates, guards, and a queen (who may not be what she seems). The top-level gets darker, a number of robed individuals circling about in a ritual with skulls and Gothic decor about.

Devil's Crush (U)-0009.pngThe first thing people will probably notice mechanically is that there is a lot more going on. There are more ball catches, pieces that evolve and shift as the game plays on, and the bonus stages are largely the same format but are more involving. The notable difference is that the game feels more difficult than its predecessor since it feels like there is less leeway for earning extra balls. While there are more opportunities to block the ball from being lost through triggering certain conditions on the table, the ball seems to slide more naturally toward these pitfalls than in the previous game.

Fantastic as it is, the game’s major downfall is in its physics. While very few people were looking for realistic pinball physics back in the day, Devil’s Crush makes it difficult to line up shots because the ricochet of the ball seems to be a little random, traveling in the same general direction it was meant to but at a different angle than it was meant to nine times out of ten. Does this ruin the game? Not at all. Does it make things a little more frustrating than they should be? Sure does.

Devil's Crush (U)-0006.pngThe benefit to the year between Alien and Devil is that the graphics and sound have improved, the former more so than the latter. Graphically, the game is a little more complex and feels like it has more polish. There are more moving parts and what little animation they have is fluid. Larger sprites like bonus room bosses are rendered well, and the score tallying scenes after are a nice touch, feeling more thematic than the first game. Overall, though, this game probably has one of the best soundtracks out of any pinball game I’ve played. The composer clearly took into account that people would be spending a while on the table and came up with a synth-rock jam that evolves as the game progresses rather than running the same loop over and over. The sound effects are right on par, too, so the whole game is a fantastic listen.

While only the Sega Genesis version of the game goes by the name Dragon’s Fury and has an ending (which sounds like it’s still not worth the time to get to due to its simplicity), Devil’s Crush is widely accepted as the best of the Crush Pinball series. It’s not hard to see why given how addictive it ended up being and how well crafted it is on most levels. Sadly, it’s tough to come by now without investing in the original game but it did see a brief second life on the Wii and Wii U through Virtual Console.

Naxat Super Pinball - Jaki Crush (Japan)002.pngJaki Crush
Super Famicom
Compile / NAXAT Soft
Genre: Fantasy Pinball
1992

Naxat Super Pinball - Jaki Crush (Japan)020.pngWith Devil’s Crush focusing on a dark “sword-and-sorcery” theme for its table, it seems like a mythology flavored title might be a great fit for the next Crush game. Jaki Crush gave players just that, focusing on Eastern mythology and figures to entertain its flipper-frenzied fans. Of course, the game never released in the US and is the only piece of the Crush series to not be released outside of Japan. Given the relative obscurity of the games at this point, though, and the Super Nintendo library at the time, it feels like it was probably a hard sell on US shores.

Once again, the format of the table follows the three-tiered setup from Devil’s Crush, offering about as much table space as the previous game. Whereas there was an entire progression of breaching a castle and finding its dark innards before, though, the general goal of Jaki Crush is to wage battle against many a demon, both through the main table and the bonus stages.

Naxat Super Pinball - Jaki Crush (Japan)006.pngHow have two years between entries treated Jaki Crush, though? There are some great ideas going on and a couple of steps back. By far, this is the fanciest and most involved table to date. There are plenty of moving parts and secrets to find. The best parts are the colorful and creative bonus levels by a large margin. Even the ball starts as a golden orb with a kanji (from the look of it) that is launched from place to place, almost reminiscent of a Dragon Ball or mystical charm- and it changes appearance and most likely strength once a boss is defeated. There is a lot going on in the game.

There are a few missteps in the table set-up, though. For one, the number of times the ball was launched and dropped immediately into a section that it couldn’t be saved from was frustrating. Even using the table shake option- which is almost vital in this entry- it felt like a number of turns at the table ended too quickly due to the slopes and ramps of the table rather than any skill I could apply. Where the physics in the previous game felt a bit off, the ball in Devil felt like it could generally be guided in the right direction as needed. In Jaki, the ball feels heavy and the trajectory of the flippers feels more arbitrary. Not in a way that can’t be handled or learned, but controlling the ball in Jaki Crush feels even less wieldy than the last game.

Naxat Super Pinball - Jaki Crush (Japan)016.pngThe presentation on the game takes a sharp deviation on each front, too. The graphics are stellar, again showing off some great environments in the bonus levels involving boss fights with thunder-wielding demons, blazing skulls, and ice creatures, just to name a few. In comparison, though, the sound feels like it has taken a step back. It’s not bad, mind you, but everything feels a little more like stock action music and sound effects for the Super Famicom at the time. It does compensate a little by having more musical tracks, taking advantage of the hardware and progressing forward, but it doesn’t reach the heights that Devil’s Crush had.

Given the fact that it’s a Japan-only release, Jaki Crush might be tough to come across without a little effort. If you’re a fan of retro games and pinball, it could be worth it with the right equipment. It certainly isn’t the worst of the series and it does some neat things that fans of Devil’s Crush may want to hunt it down for.


Dragon's Revenge (JUE) [!]_001.png
Dragon’s Revenge
Sega Genesis
Tengen
Genre: Fantasy Pinball
1993

Dragon's Revenge (JUE) [!]_005.pngHaving had success with Devil’s Crush in the US, the folks behind the series decided to ride that wave a few years later by creating a sequel to the game. Since a number of players knew the original by the more popular title Dragon’s Fury due to there being more support behind the Sega Genesis in this neck of the woods, the second game would be titled Dragon’s Revenge, picking up where Fury left off. Oddly enough, though, Compile and NAXAT Soft, the developers of the previous Crush titles, had nothing to do with this entry. Instead, the folks at Tengen (of Gauntlet fame) would take a turn at the wheel- for better or worse.

The “plot” of the game is that the sorceress Darzel and a dragon who are enslaving the village of Kaflin’s Keep. She has captured three adventurers who are integral to stopping her, and it’s up to the player to help rally those adventurers, freeing them to put an end to the dragon’s reign and stopping Darzel from taking over the land. While the plot’s a standard one, the game does its best to incorporate elements of the story into the bonus stages and the table.

Dragon's Revenge (JUE) [!]_009.pngUnfortunately, that’s about where the positive parts of the mechanics seem to end. While boasting what is most likely the largest table of the series up until then, it doesn’t feel like the game does much with it. Instead of having a ball with any kind of physics, the player is left with what feels like a bouncy ball let loose in a room full of trampolines; the more the ball hits, the faster it seems to go until it’s really just a matter of luck if it will stay on the board. The tilt option feels nigh useless, too, rarely coming in handy to save a doomed ball, and the ball seems to push through certain barriers and flippers when it is hit hard enough. It all feels like a mess that outweighs the fun action-filled parts of the game. Even the bonus stages feel sparse, relying more on spectacle than fun.

Dragon's Revenge (JUE) [!]_002.pngThe game is nice enough to look at, about on par with the rest of the Genesis library. Nearly all of the game’s artistic stock is in its bonus levels this time around with interesting enemies that are animated against some nice fantasy backdrops in an attempt to emulate some of the sword-and-sorcery art that was so prevalent at the time. The sound design takes a heavy dip, though, steeped in the heavy bass and repetitive tunes that also permeated a lot of the more average games on the system. Sound effects are all either canned vocal effects (with an embarrassing amount of female moaning) or over the top explosion sounds. While this was an attempt to appeal to the cool action that Genesis had promised at the time, it misses the mark so far as the rest of the series is concerned.

While it’s not a terrible game overall, Dragon’s Revenge feels like the weakest of the Crush Pinball games. Whether it was due to the lack of Compile and NAXAT’s input or trying to appeal to the popular demographic of the time, the game is sloppy and feels like more of a relic of its time than a pinball game made to be fun and engaging. It was certainly the first game in the series I was okay with putting down one I did a few runs.

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Alien Crush Returns
Wii
Tamsoft / Hudson Soft
Genre: Sci-Fi Pinball
2008

While critics seemed to enjoy Dragon’s Revenge, it would appear to be the final piece of the Crush Pinball franchise for years after. In an odd resurgence, though, the actual parting title for the series would come out fifteen years later as a WiiWare exclusive title. Returning to the origins of the series, the team at Tamsoft- who has an eclectic history of games, to begin with- decided to develop Alien Crush Returns, a modern retake on the first game from 1989.

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From the beginning, the improvements are clear. Boasting a story mode and an arcade mode, Alien Crush Returns has a little more depth than its ancestors. Arcade Mode is exactly what it sounds like and plays like the older titles. By choosing one of three tables, the player can aim for the high score and play through three balls worth of alien slaughter. The Story Mode threads a narrative across the tables, placing the player as the universe’s last hope against the aliens in an attempt to destroy their mothership and keep Earth safe. While it only consists of five stages- the three tables and two boss levels- it’s a unique take on the gameplay of the previous games. There is also an added feature of “Action Balls” where with the push of a button, the ball will be propelled forward, backward (key for saving a turn sometimes), or splitting it in a sort of multi-ball. These are all earned as the game is played.

WE9E18-20.pngReturns isn’t without its flaws. Overall, the story feels short, especially for a game that has a save feature and lets you retry whichever table you left off on when you lost your final ball. While there’s no need for an in-depth story, the objectives are achieved quickly across the tables, consisting of destroying all of the aliens that appear or destroying the boss. Really, the game’s longevity is in its Arcade Mode, but the effort to include something new is appreciated.

The physics are still a little off, but they feel a ton better than Dragon’s Revenge, the ricochets and paths feeling much more natural and easy to shoot with skill. Tables are a little smaller and less happens across them, but they are fun to navigate. The two boss battles are also a blast with enemies that actually fight back who can destroy your ball if you aren’t careful. What Returns attempts to offer is a fun pinball experience that can be approached a few ways, depending on your play style.

 

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Fifteen years makes a world of difference for both visuals and music, and Alien Crush Returns takes advantage of that. It’s hard to deny that the graphics are fantastic to look at, losing some of the retro charms of the other Crush games but making for an interesting- and sometimes nauseating- design that compliments the original game’s Giger-esque veneer. It can be easy to lose your ball in the visuals at times, though, which is the only setback. Listening to the game is nice, and none of the tables last so long that the soundtrack grates. The mix of techno and ominous tracks are engaging and while they still don’t beat the best of the series, the soundscape of the game is solid.

While the game’s length is the pain point for most critics, it’s a kind of sad that Alien Crush Returns doesn’t have a way to be purchased anymore, the true issue with WiiWare exclusive games. It’s a fun deviation that has some great ideas and works effectively as a love letter to its 20-year-old inspiration.

Conclusion
The Crush Pinball series is a jewelry box of hidden gems. Even the games I enjoyed the least were still fun to play even with their flaws. Pinball games don’t exactly hit the mainstream often anymore, though, and quite a few of them try to get every bounce and pivot right in an attempt at an accurate recreation of the tables that line almost every arcade. Stepping into this series with the mindset that these are meant to be stylish and a bit wacky rather than a representation of the real deal will definitely help anyone interested in checking these out. By sheer ability to retrieve the games at this point, though, the series may not be worth pursuing since Jaki Crush is Import only, requiring a Super Famicom to play, and Alien Crush Returns can’t be bought anymore, knocking out almost half of the titles right off.

If you happen to have these games or you’re looking to add to your retro collection, it wouldn’t hurt to put these titles on your shortlist. The original trilogy from Compile and NAXAT is a ton of fun and the replayability of the series, in general, is pretty high due to the nature of pinball itself. The trappings that the developers placed to draw people in further are a nice bonus that pays off more often than not.

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That Fine Line Between Derision and Admiration – Nintendo 3DS – Creeping Terror – 2017

20190413100028_1Creeping Terror
Nintendo 3DS
Nikkatsu Corporation / Mebius / Aksys Games
Genre: Point-and-Click Horror
2017

The beautiful thing about the survival horror genre is that there are always developers trying to innovate and find new ways to break through the separation between the player and the distance of the screen to send shivers down spines and adrenaline through the roof. It gets tough with so many hands in the pot, though; for every Eternal Darkness, there is a The Ring: Terror’s Realm.

What happens when Japan’s oldest surviving film studio decides to jump into the ring, though? Nikkatsu Corporation is just that company and knowing quite a bit about films, it makes sense that they would eventually want to strike out into other media. Their first game to the development credit appears to be a PS Vita game from 2016 called Tokyo Tattoo Girls. While it doesn’t look up my alley, it genuinely seems like a strange first step for a company that’s been around for over 100 years.

Their second effort (so far as I can find, at least) was 2017’s Creeping Terror and it appeared on its surface to be a Clock Tower homage, which was the perfect draw for me to look further into it. As a fan of a number of games in Aksys’s catalog, it seemed like a safe enough bet that I’d at least enjoy it for a little while. It’s hard not to be wary as a horror fan, though. Some companies just throw some dark corridors together, slap some stickers on the outside comparing their game to “x”, and lure unwitting hopefuls into a web of mediocre and uninspired jump scares with nonsense plots.

Not that I’m jaded- but I had some hesitation heading into Creeping Terror. Continue reading

It’s Like a Totally Filtered Reality – XBox One – Blair Witch – 2019

Blair_Witch_video_game_posterBlair Witch
XBox One
Bloober Team/Lionsgate Games
Genre: Survival Horror
2019

Not all horror movies lend themselves well to their respective genre. Some efforts with popular movies like The Ring and Ju-On fall flat almost immediately while franchises like Friday the 13th and Evil Dead have produced offerings that, while not critically stellar, appealed to their audience and resulted in stronger showings. The reception of movie-based games, in general, has been all over the map.

When the Blair Witch film was announced to be released in 2016, sixteen years after the second film had slipped into theaters and directly into cult status, it came as a bit of a surprise to audiences that another entry was on the horizon. Another surprise came when an announcement was made about a game being developed for the same franchise coming out in 2019. Considering the quick obscurity of the trilogy of games developed for the PC in the early 2000s, taking another step into the gaming pool was an unexpected venture to hear about at first.

Headed up by Bloober Team, the creators of prominent indie titles like Layers of Fear and Observer with input from Lionsgate Films, the developers of the Blair Witch films, it seemed like after the decent reception for the film a few years before, the formula could be perfect to strike at the Blair Witch and her reign of terror again. Given the impact the initial trailer had, it seemed like the game could land on either side of the quality fence- but given that the game hit the XBox Game Pass, I figured it was as good a time as any to find out for myself how well the end product turned out from one of my favorite horror films growing up.
Continue reading

Fear Twice Over and Doubled – Playstation 2 – Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly – 2003

TitleFatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly
Playstation 2
Tecmo
Genre: Survival Horror
2003

While I’m still catching up with my batch of games from the Halloween season last year, it’s been a goal of mine to play through some of the major series of the horror genre since I started up the blog. Fatal Frame’s been among the goals since the beginning since I’ve only played through the first two despite owning the rest of the series. Given my recent look into the original Fatal Frame, I was excited to check out the second game again. Full honesty: I haven’t played it since high school and my memory of it was fuzzy but positive.

Now, Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly is one of the heralded possessions for horror collectors on the Playstation 2, though it hasn’t quite hit the heights of Rule of Rose or Kuon. It falls squarely into the crosshairs of “relatively affordable” and “rare enough to require hunting for a genuine copy”.  It has a strong reputation as one of the scariest horror video games available- period. The few vivid memories I had of the game before my replay were of some choice scares so I couldn’t really fight that reputation myself. Again, though- it had been a while.

Since October felt like the perfect time to make some headway into the Fatal Frame games, I figured I’d dig out my copy of the fabled Crimson Butterfly and see if I could dust off some of the cobwebs on my memories from years ago.  Continue reading