Believe it or not... this entry includes my 60th Homebreview! To mark the occasion, I'm reviewing a couple of games that were released at the Classic Gaming Expo this summer. The ROMs aren't available, so I've posted movies of them, to show you what they're really like (sorry about the quality - they were shot off of a TV screen).
Actually, I would have rather reviewed a really good game instead, but these are the last two unreviewed games that I've got. So there you go.
Although these reviews are already editorials of a sort, I'm going to editorialize a little bit more, before delving into the reviews proper.
N.E.R.D.S and The Last Ninja are the worst homebrews I've reviewed to date. They aren't merely near-misses that just barely fell short of their potential, either. Both have a very unfinished feel to them. Neither offers much of a challenge, any depth, innovation or replay value. They're poorly designed and executed, as if hastily slapped together just for the sake of "making a game". Is that too harsh? I know it takes a lot of work to program a game. It takes a lot of effort to manufacture them. And I know that the people who program games have a desire to see their games published on a cartridge. In some cases, they've dreamed about it since being a kid. I've got game ideas I'd love to see on a cart, too. Who doesn't? But that doesn't mean every idea is a good one, nor does it mean that even potentially good ideas get executed to their fullest potential. In the case of both of these games, I can only speculate why they were made. It seems odd that not one, but two games at this level of quality should be given such a high-profile release: fully boxed, limited editions, and a starring role at a game expo. Did it just happen that these games were finished at the right time, and they were convenient titles to turn into boxed editions, regardless of how good or bad they actually were? Or were they created for the sole purpose of selling boxed games, and whatever the end result was didn't really matter? Given that the games are only available this way, and not just as cartridges and manuals (and the manuals, incidentally, are just single pieces of card stock, folded over) calls into question exactly who they intended to sell these to. It seems to be a rather counter-productive way to reach as broad of an audience as possible, if you're selling a game you're truly proud of and want people to play. To me, this whole thing smacks of playing to the collector crowd, assuming that no matter what gets put in a box - as long as it is in a box - collectors will line up and pay outrageous prices just to have them. I consider that to be manipulative and insulting to anyone who enjoys buying games for classic systems, whether they're collectors or not. For both of these games, having boxes - and the resultant astronomical prices - actually hurt their reviews. I might have treated them a little bit kinder if the packaging and pricing weren't so completely out-of-line with the quality of the games. Now, despite having a limited production run, these two games are showing up at AtariAge, presumably because Atari2600.com simply couldn't unload all of them on their own. Maybe the lesson to be learned here is that just because you can program a game, doesn't mean it should automatically be put on a cart. Maybe it would be better to hold off until the next game, and chalk up the first as a learning experience.
What happened during these games' development? There are plenty of homebrews to compare works-in-progress to, and there are far more commercially released games to use as points-of-comparison. Is that fair? Absolutely. Many homebrews exceed the quality of a lot (if not most) of the commercially released games, even those from major companies. There are standards to strive for. Sure, not everyone can program something like Thrust+ or Lady Bug, but there's no reason not to at least aim at lesser, but still good games. For example, Apollo's Spacechase is very similar in appearance to N.E.R.D.S, but Spacechase is vastly superior in every way - and Spacechase is far from being the best vertical shooter on the 2600. Beyond that is the sheer amount of information and help available to programmers: websites, the [stella] mailing list, even these very forums. I'm not a programmer, but even I know where to look for that stuff. No excuse can be made about there being a lack of help available.
I have to seriously question how much play-testing went on with these games. The Last Ninja is solvable in about 5 minutes, and once you solve it, there's nothing left to do. It's a one-shot deal, with no replay value at all. Even a game like Dark Mage, which also has a single solution, has vastly more going for it, because it does take some time to get through it, it's engaging while you're playing it, and it's something completely unique on the 2600. (Besides that, you could buy three copies of Dark Mage and still have three dollars left over, for the cost of The Last Ninja.) In N.E.R.D.S, after about the fourth round, the boss virus no longer comes out, and it just repeats the same enemy formation at the same difficulty level, presumably forever. N.E.R.D.S also has major collision detection issues, and a jumpy screen (presumably a scanline count problem). Was this ever tested on real hardware? Was this ever tested? These seem to have been developed in a vacuum, much like the Ebivision games. Nobody seemed to have heard of them, much less played them, prior to their release. Many homebrews have benefited, to at least some degree, from feedback given by people play-testing their games. I can't help but think that both of these games would have also benefited from a lot more play-testing from a lot more people. That's not to say programmers should (or even could) implement all of the suggestions that come in. But even rejected suggestions can lead to other ideas that can ultimately improve a game. As long as the suggestions are given with respect, with an eye towards improving the game, I would think most programmers would welcome the feedback. Wouldn't it be more desirable to release a good game that people were already interested in, rather than surprise them with a bad one?
As I stated before, these are the two worst homebrews I've reviewed, and I hope it remains that way. I'd hate to think this was the start of a trend. I've bashed Merlin's Walls pretty good, but at least that was innovative, and they were trying something really different. Bonus points and my admiration for that, if not for the actual end result. My hope for N.E.R.D.S and The Last Ninja is that nobody runs across them and assumes that they represent the rest of the homebrew scene. What a terrible thing, if the many great homebrews that are out there, are left undiscovered by someone just because they ran across these two games first.
So with that, on to the reviews:
It should be noted that N.E.R.D.S was produced by Atari2600.com - not by AtariAge.
On the surface, this may resemble Apollo's Spacechase, but it's not. Spacechase is a far better game. In fact, I can't readily think of any 2600 vertical shooter that's not better than N.E.R.D.S.
In N.E.R.D.S, you fly a miniaturized ship through a person's blood vessels, shooting viruses. First, they appear in groups of eight, then as a single large "boss" virus. The problem is, the game isn't challenging, isn't really any fun, and doesn't feel like it's even finished. The eight small viruses simply move back and forth - not firing at you - then fly down towards you, moving slightly as they "attack". Their initial left-right formation speed increases as the game goes on, but they're still easy to hit. Their spacing also makes it easy just to hold down the fire button, and pick them off without having to move. It doesn't really matter if you hit them in formation or not though, since their vertical attack speed doesn't really seem to get any faster, and the collision detection in the game is so bad, they'll often fly right through you. The game is just too easy. It's predictable and boring. If there were just something more to it - maybe being penalized for running into the blood vessel walls, or if the formations would just shoot at you once in awhile, or change their attack pattern - maybe this game could have been worth playing. Even the boss virus doesn't offer any real challenge. It does fire at you, but it's a very poor shot, and it never charges at you - it just moves back and forth. Shoot it enough times, and it's back to the formations. After a while, the bosses don't even come out anymore, and your just stuck with the same formation - over and over again.
N.E.R.D.S has no options. No difficulty switch settings. You get only one life (although with the aforementioned collision detection, it's more like 20). The graphics are okay but there's only one enemy design, the sound effects are minimal, and the picture jumps whenever the enemies reach the bottom of the screen. It makes me wonder if anyone bothered play-testing this, or checked it on real hardware. There's just not much of anything here. It seems more like a 1k mini-game, and a poorly done one at that. In fact, there are quite a few 1k games that are far better than N.E.R.D.S, including Zirconium on the 2005 MiniGame MulitCart, and Lead 1K - which is included as an extra with the full version of Lead.
The reason N.E.R.D.S seems to exist, is its box. It's a very nice box. It's a very expensive box. It even has a seal across the flap with the N.E.R.D.S logo printed on it, so when you break the seal, you'll feel the value of your investment slipping away. It has nice looking artwork, and it's very slickly produced. It will look great on your shelf. If that's what's important to you, maybe forking over $42 for a box is reasonable. Even then, there are misspellings on the box (although technically, you could be attacked by a "rouge" viral agent, I suppose), and the cardboard insert that's supposed to hold the cart in place had folded in on itself, so the cart was flopping around loose in the box. Finally, despite all the money put into the packaging, they couldn't even get all of the old adhesive residue off of the recycled cart shell, which shows up around the edges of the new label.
Save your money. Buy something else. You can get a couple of other, better homebrews for the cost of N.E.R.D.S. If you want a game with a similar theme, buy a copy of 20th Century Fox's excellent Fantastic Voyage. That had a really nice box, too. But it came with a real game inside.
Things to watch for: Hardly having to move the player's ship, the horrible collision detection, periodic screen jumps (whenever the enemies go off the bottom of the screen), and at 8000 points, I get killed, and the game immediately restarts, wiping out my score. After that, I intentionally crashed to see how the game is "supposed" to end.
The Last Ninja 1/5
It should be noted that The Last Ninja was produced by Atari2600.com - not by AtariAge.
As The Last Ninja, you are alone against the Emperor and his minions. You must battle samurai, thugs, and vicious guard dogs as you track down the Emperor in his garden maze, to seek your revenge and put an end to his reign once and for all.
In The Last Ninja, you move from room to room, searching for the Emperor and battling bad guys by hurling throwing stars at them. There's also a power-up where you can get super-sized throwing stars, which take down opponents with fewer hits. The sprites are decent, although the samurai looks like a girl with a pony tail, and all of the animation is minimal. Sound is almost nonexistent, except for a handful of uninspired blips and beeps. The samurai has a "special strike", which consists of the sprite flickering back and forth once it gets near you, making it a little harder to hit. There is no score, although a character's health is indicated by a change in their color. A nice touch is that if you linger too long in a room after killing an opponent, their ghost will come after you. The problem is, each room only has one opponent in it, which is hardly a challenge to begin with. The enemies are all easy to avoid or kill, including the Emperor. Just hold down the fire button, and you'll auto-fire throwing stars, and take down anything in your path. Simply moving behind a wall effectively renders most opponents harmless, although there's a bug in the game where if you're up against certain walls, you can't throw your stars.
But The Last Ninja's biggest problem, besides being too easy, is that it never changes. The rooms are always in the same place, with the same opponents in the same locations, at the same difficulty level, every time you play. With no score or timer, there's nothing to improve upon when you solve the game. And the game isn't large enough for it to take very long to get through every room. Most players would likely find the Emperor in about five minutes, tops. And after memorizing where he is, you can get to him in about a minute (or less if you don't stop to kill enemies along the way). As it is, this feels more like the first level of a game, than an entire game. There are no additional levels. No other layouts. No difficulty switch settings. No other game options. It plays more like a work-in-progress, than a fully fleshed-out, complete game.
As with N.E.R.D.S, The Last Ninja's main selling point would seem to be it's box. While it's a well-constructed box, the artwork looks like it was cobbled together in a couple of minutes with clip art using PowerPoint, or some other equally ill-suited software. If they were going to put that kind of money into making a box for it, couldn't they have held a label contest for it? Certainly, someone could have come up with something better, especially if you're going to charge a whopping $42 for the finished product. The manual also seems hastily put together, with the interior being inexplicably printed at a low resolution, as if it were made from a screenshot. Beyond that, the insert that's supposed to hold the cart in place had folded in on itself, so the cart was flopping around loose in the box. Finally, they couldn't get all of the adhesive residue off of the recycled cart shell, and it shows up around the edges of the new label, as it did on N.E.R.D.S.
The Last Ninja might have made an okay mini-game, perhaps as an Easter Egg on some other cartridge. As it is, it's a waste of money. Five minutes, and you're through with it, and those five minutes don't offer any real challenge, or innovative gameplay, or anything worth looking at or listening to. There is absolutely no replay value, and even the box, which might have otherwise appealed to collectors looking to fill up an empty spot on a shelf, has poorly done, amateurish-looking artwork. There are plenty of other, much better homebrew games to get, and they all cost less than The Last Ninja. Even the ones with boxes.
This is a complete game walkthrough which shows where to find the emperor. If I hadn't stopped to kill anything, it probably would have been about 20 seconds long. The rest of the game isn't much bigger than what's shown here. < PreviousHomebreviews IndexNext >