Read Stuart’s column every week in The Scottish Sun, where he shares his reviews, news and podcasts with the 99.3% of the World’s population not fortunate enough to be able to buy a physical copy of the paper. The following appeared originally in The Scottish Sun on Sunday 10th May 2020.
SnowRunner (Xbox One, PS4 and PC, £44.99)
THE current pandemic has left many of us with wanderlust — but restricted to exploring the garden at best. So it is good to have a virtual option. Saber Interactive’s latest creation lets you get lost in the wild. This is the sequel to their cult hit, no- messing, off-road sim MudRunner, but this one has a much chillier feel. It is an addictive mix of rock-hard road driving and a chance to relax and chill on a trek through the woods. The driving experience is unique — you have to use your grey matter as much as the throttle because each job serves up a new challenge. Now, we really need to get one thing straight — if you are expecting snow from the offset then you will be disappointed. You don’t get that thrill ride until much later in the game. That all means the opening gambits feel more of a halfway house between MudRunner and Snowrunner rather than a new game.
Your initial aim is to help the locals and get your cargo to its delivery point. There are three BIG wide-open maps set in the US and Russia. Each has a mix of terrains, from steep rocky climbs and frozen lakes to waterlogged roads and mud. Lots of mud. Lots and lots of mud. Unlike MudRunner, the jobs actually help you move around the world so you may have to deliver steel to rebuild a fallen bridge which you can then use. Overall, the jobs feel more linked to the world although you can still find stranded loads that need to be saved and delivered as well as a handful of odd jobs when you go off the beaten path.
There is a healthy selection of heavy metal to get the job done — around 40 rigs, all with their own pros and cons and each with different handling characteristics. Mastering them and knowing which rig best suits the task is the key to success. It seems obvious but the more jobs you do the more coin you bank, allowing you to buy bigger and better toys to dig bigger and deeper holes in the road. Then you can find the trucks hidden around the maps — they can save you cash so you can upgrade your rig instead. But, in a bit of an odd move, some of the core off-road features, such as tyre options and drive bases, are locked behind a level cap. That feels like a wrong turn because the game is so open-ended it doesn’t lend itself to a traditional unlock system. Another niggle is that the controls of the smaller scout pick-ups can be twitchy.
If you find it heavy going alone you can team up with three mates online. That’s where things get really interesting as you can each work different roles like heavy lifter or fuelling. And you can all do separate jobs. SnowRunner has its older brother’s classy looks — often delivering memorable moments such as battling a hill climb for 40 minutes then reaching the top as the sun breaks through the treetops. And kudos to the developers who created the mud effects. You feel dirty just watching it. This is an acquired taste. It is certainly targeted at a particular type of sim fan. If that is you, then this is a barrel-load of fun. For everyone else, it has a curiosity value that lets you get outdoors.
PC Engine CoreGrafx Mini (£99.99)
THE condensed console business is booming — with classic machines getting a mini makeover. The gaming giants — Sega, Nintendo and Sony — have all made sure they get their slice of the miniature magic pie. It attracts new buyers and gives them a chance to dust off some much-loved titles from yesteryear and give them a new lease of life. Their success proves that nostalgia can be a big draw for gamers looking to recapture their youth. But could the magic spell work 30 years later on a console that was considered an oddity back in the day? And one that had hardly rippled the sales surface. Well, Konami — yes, the same Konami that published Metal Gear and still makes PES — have just released the PC Engine CoreGrafx Mini. Extra points if you remember the original.
This is a bite-size version of the 1990 PC Engine CoreGrafx that was originally made by NEC Home Electronics. It lived by a few names around the world — a trend that has continued with this one. This is the TurboGrafx 16 Mini in the United States. But it’s not just the name that’s different — there are three different versions of the console with US, UK and European variants. To be fair there is just a logo and colour change between the European and UK ones, but the American machine is a totally different-looking beast. We reckon this suggests that the mini console is really targeted at the hardcore collector and not so much at those looking to capture past joys . . . a theory that is backed up by the game selection.
You get FIFTY SEVEN titles — including a few hidden gems — but there is a sucker punch. There are about 25 TurboGrafx 16 games, with the rest PC Engine games that are ALL in Japanese. That makes many of these “treats” suck-it-and-see affairs. Some are playable but you haven’t got a hope with others unless you unearth a fan translation to read while you’re playing. The console is a perfect downscale of the original and is a cute character compared with other minis — but the UK one is the best-looking. The controller feels good and the buttons are satisfyingly spongy when pressed but you only get one controller with the console even though it can take two. There is a multitap on the way. Set-up and menus are very easy and clean. Loading and jumping from title to title is simple and there is a range of display settings.
The PC Engine CoreGrafx Mini was always going to be a challenge. It was never a mainstream console, so it is a rare collector’s item. However, this mini may be the best of its kind to date. It is well-rounded, but time will tell if that is enough to take it beyond original fans and collectors.
How do the games stand the test of time?
PC Engine was best-known for 2D shooters and Gradius is one of the jewels in the crown. This is a cult game that became a classic. It was developed by Konomi for the arcades in 1985, but was given the re-release treatment on the PC Engine in 1991. This is easily the best version — beating other homeports hands down. Gradius was also known as the Nemesis. It is a series of rock-solid space blasters and may be one of the granddaddies of the whole genre but its name carries real weight, even with non-fans. This version is a near arcade-perfect conversion. In some places it is actually even better because it features an extra level and some bonus stages. The sound is epic — it adds a real depth to the gaming experience. What. A. Riot.
SEGA’S classic arcade shooter may be an odd title to have on a non-Sega machine, but it’s actually appeared on more than 20 systems over the years. This version is a cracking port which maintains the arcade vibe. It was one of the first Sega revolutionary “super scaler” machines and is set in a bizarre fantasy world. You control a lone warrior equipped with a flying cannon who must defend the Fantasy Zone from all threats. This coin-op hit may have had shallow gameplay and a risk of gamers getting bored fairly quickly, but it’s the perfect short, sharp blast of arcade fun. This will never fail to get you fired up in the heat of battle. And it will certainly save you a fortune in 50p pieces.
BOMBERMAN fans rejoice! The PC Engine Core Grafx Mini gives you both the ’93 and ’94 versions. It also makes the biggest argument about picking up the multitap and a few other controllers. Let’s be honest, solo Bomberman . . . bombs. It is no fun. The real joy is battling it out with your mates on the couch in a bid to be the last player standing after an epic bomb fest. Hudson’s classic multiplayer franchise is fast, frantic and addictive. There is debate over whether the ’93 version is better than the ’94, but both vintages are tasty on the mini console. The basics are the same in both — trap your opponents in a maze by carpet-bombing the level. At the same time, grab power-ups to help you out. Yes, you can play the single-player side, but multi is where this is at.
Lords of Thunder
THIS 1993 side-scrolling 2D shooter is a bit of a looker and has a fantastic heavy metal soundtrack that is easily the best ever on the PC Engine. You blast your way through seven stages and you can decide which order to tackle the first six — a la Megaman. The game is set in a fantasy world as Mistral confronts the re-awakened evil god Deoric and his dark generals who have torn the world asunder. Or, to put it another way, done the dirty. Select your stage and pick one of four sets of armour. Each is based on four classical elements that affect your shots and bombs. This is actually a sequel of sorts to the sci-fi themed Gate Of Thunder but unfortunately it’s not included on the PC Engine Core Grafx Mini.
BEING the sequel to Bubble Bobble and Rainbow Islands meant this had some big shoes to fill. It’s closer to the former than the latter but there is more than a vibe of both titles. You eat, collect and throw things all the time, wielding a parasol that has multiple uses — including being a shield, parachute and, of course, a weapon to stun enemies. We’ll be honest, you’ll have no idea what’s going on when you start. It is like a fevered dream in psychedelic colour and you just jump around the stage collecting stuff and hitting everything that moves in the search for more points. But after a few — well, loads — of games things click in a weird sort of way and you get a grip of what’s going on. Then it throws a boss fight at you. Cute, colourful, but very hard.
WHEN you have a system that is known for 2D shooters then it would be a crime not to have, arguably, the king of the genre. To be fair this was enough of a reason to own a PC Engine back in the day because it was a nearly perfect port of the original coin-op. The developers drew inspiration from games like Gradius as well as movies like Aliens and the works of HR Giger, and you can see the influence in a lot of the enemy designs. You must fly your ship through several sequential levels — each with a boss fight at the end. But the real hook is that you start out with weak rapid-firing guns but they get beefed up as you progress and land on power-ups from destroyed enemies. Boom.
THERE are timeless treats on the PC Engine Core Grafx Mini, but others are retro classics. Bandai Namco’s Splatterhouse is a case in point. What once would have seen parents across the land in uproar over horror scenes and stories now seem pretty tame by modern standards. But, at the time, there was nothing like it. The PC Engine version even had a parental advisory warning on the box. This side-scrolling beat ’em-up features nods to everything from Friday The 13th to Alien and Poltergeist as you are the hockey mask-wearing Rick who battles through an evil mansion to defend Dr West and save his girlfriend. But, like the gory visuals, time hasn’t been kind to the gameplay. It feels very stiff to control. Overlook the rough edges and this is a solid beat ’em-up that does have some creaky moments — even 30 years on.
IT’S a fair bet that unless you’re a hardcore fan or collector, cyberpunk thriller Snatcher is the main reason to pick up this mini console. It is a true unicorn of a game. It is hard to track down and even harder to get working, and it’s become a cult classic because of one of the game’s development team. The visual novel is by Metal Gear and Death Stranding creator Hideo Kojima — and that makes this a must-play for a lot of his fans because it is some of his earliest work in the industry. It is clear he “borrowed” more than a few ideas from movies such as Blade Runner and The Terminator to create the game. And before you rush to buy the Mini system there’s one BIG issue — it’s all in Japanese. You need to know the language to follow what’s happening, but there are fan translations to help with a play-through.
I’ll be back next week with more from North of the Border. Catch ye’s…