Features Reader Roundtable

Reader Roundtable Vol. 114

September brings with it the end of summer and a return to colder weather (for most people). Another year is entering the twilight of its life, but gaming is eternal. Our staff and readers play their 16-bit machines without regard for seasons, and there’s always something to keep us glued to our controllers.


Earth Defense By Ken Horowitz

Unlicensed games weren’t uncommon on the Genesis, and some are actually pretty decent. When I picked up a sealed copy of Earth Defense for $15, I hoped it fit that description, even though my experience with unlicensed shmups had taught me better. And of course, once I booted it up, I found a game that dashed my wishes and proved to be entirely what I knew in my heart it would be.  I can’t say I didn’t know any better.

Earth Defense fails on so many fronts that it makes you wonder if the developers weren’t simply trolling the 16-bit market. Everything here is horrible, from the manual (they couldn’t even get the name right!) to the laughable graphics and sound. I guess it could have merit as one of those “so bad it’s good” types of games, but the whole time I just felt like I’d rather be playing something else, and quite frankly, I think my Genesis felt the same. I could sense its humiliation as I played through Earth Defense; it was almost palpable. The experience had airs of a fraternity hazing, except that my Genesis has long since proven itself to me. Why then, would I subject it to this? As Earth Defense bleeped and blurped its ugliness across my television screen, the console’s little red light shone brightly in my direction, as if to ask that very same question…

Marble Madness (EA version) By Sebastian Sponsel


Ok, just to be clear on this: I don’t hate Marble Madness per se. In fact, I quite like its general idea and the gameplay. I first got to know the game in its Amiga home computer version, and it was a great game to play with a trackball. It also played pretty well with a mouse. And even the Genesis port plays relatively well, considering it lacks mouse support and has to be played with a trackball. The two-player version on the other hand doesn’t play quite as good… It actually has quite an annoying amount of slowdown, which dampens the enjoyment a bit.

But the music! Dear lord, the music! This has to be one of the worst aural offenders the Genesis library has to offer! The first stage is halfway decent, but after that it just gets worse and worse and worse… The sound guy either didn’t know how to handle the sound chip, or just didn’t give a damn at all. Probably both! Stage four has got to be the worst offender. It’s like the composer thought “Damn, still three more tracks to go… screw it, I’ll just pick the worst, most annoying chords I can find on the keyboard and keep hammering away until they finally tell me to stop!”

Unfortunately no one did…

If you hate your neighbors and want to piss them off, just crank up the volume and let this track play in endless loop. Just pray to the gods that your ears won’t start bleeding first. Or, you could just play the Tengen version instead. Aside from actually having mouse support and not suffering from that much slowdown, I hear the soundtrack’s actually bearable in that one.

Aerobiz By Paige

One of the newest additions to my collections is Aerobiz, and my sister Blair and I wasted no time tossing in the cartridge and starting up a game. We opted for scenario 2 (spanning 1983 to 2015); I became the CEO of “AirPage” based in Rome, and my sister set up “BlAir” (short for “BlAirlines”) in Honolulu. We were pitted against the computer-run airline companies Pacific, based out of Singapore, and AeroRus in Moscow.

Wherever AeroRus set up a route, I set up a competing one. The closeness of our respective HQs gave me the bright idea to try to run them out of business as quickly as possible. I set up a branch office in Moscow, and bam – by the late 1980s, AeroRus was so far in the red they couldn’t keep up. Meanwhile, BlAirlines was slowly but surely taking off (basing her company out of Honolulu didn’t do her any favors), and Pacific did… virtually nothing for the entire decade.

Throughout the 1990s, my sister and I did all kinds of things for our airline businesses: built hotels, bought shares of charter companies’ stock (and sold them off when running low on funds), ran both successful and unsuccessful advertisements, purchased the same two planes over and over again, and basically ignored whatever advice the people underneath us tried to offer. Pacific, our only real competitor, started to become extremely successful; after a while we would each set up competing routes, hoping that Pacific would one day share the same fate AeroRus did the decade before.

Aerobiz 3And then, in 2000, the unexpected happened: AeroRus opened a flight from New York to Lagos! Apparently they sold off a ton of stock they had in some charter company and did what they could to bounce back. I was having none of it, and promptly started to drive them to the ground again, leaving BlAirlines to fend for themselves against the now-humongous Pacific. But the end date was drawing near, and we needed to get our acts together if either one of us was going to win.

Blair was the first to achieve a WORLD NETWORK; she had about a decade to get the 3500K passengers to ride her flights. I found out the hard way you can have a maximum of 30 routes going on at any time, but I wasn’t about to let any of them go fearing that those passengers would go straight into the arms of our competitors. Pacific had the passengers, and just needed the WORLD NETWORK to win! Time was not on our side, and Blair and I set out for the final push.

By late 2006, AeroRus officially went under. A message popped up, informing us that they ousted their president and started again from scratch. They set up routes that no one currently had—it was better this way, as I get easily distracted by their presence and I didn’t have time for that. It also became clear to me that BlAirlines needed just one more year (with a successful network campaign) to win the game. I decided to add as many flights per route as I could in an attempt to snatch up some of Pacific’s large passenger base to help her achieve victory.

In April 2007 the worst music ever played. A cut scene began, featuring two guys who looked like they were running away from disaster, informing us that Pacific had won! The journey was over, and we sat in front of the TV in silence.

I’m sure we’ll play this game again soon, now that we have a better idea what we’re doing. And I’m sure that when we do, it’ll be to get our revenge and take down Pacific (and probably AeroRus, knowing me) once and for all!

Spellcaster By The Coop

Sometimes a game just… doesn’t like you. It’s not because it’s a bad game, or one that you don’t understand the play mechanics of. It’s simply because at some point, it decides to halt any and all progress you’re making by throwing something at you that you simply can’t get past. Sometimes it’s a single boss, sometimes it’s a particularly touchy jump, and sometimes… it’s just a mean-spirited bit of hide-and-go-seek.

The latter is what happened to me with Spellcaster when I was considerably younger. A friend of mine and I decided we wanted to play this game. I’d owned it for a little while, but I never really gave it a full-on shot. So, we sat down and began making our way through. After a number of play sessions, we reached a pyramid that seemed to have no way to get inside. And it was here that the frustration began.

Reader Roundtable Vol. 114 1Neither of us could remember seeing any hints about the place, which meant either we zipped through an important piece of dialogue, or there simply wasn’t any that told us what we needed to do. We knew this pyramid was where we had to go, but how the hell were we supposed to get into it? We searched, we backtracked and talked to people, we cussed a bit and then searched some more. There was nothing to help us, and it was pretty much a stopping point due to frustration. But one evening, while I was playing on my own, I had what Bob Ross would have called a “happy accident.”

While goofing around and just trying stupid things, I cast the spell “Fudo” because I had pretty much run out of things to try. The interesting part? It worked. The spell burned away some grass that was covering the entrance into the pyramid. I may have been young, but I know full well I was thinking, YOU SON OF A BITCH!. I was ecstatic, but pissed at the same time. How could the game hide the only way into a place that you have to get into to continue the game? That’s like hanging out with someone and having fun with then for a while, and then they suddenly decide to slash your tires and watch as you try to figure out how you’re going to get home. I mean, it just… BAH!

Anyway, I showed my friend the next time they came over and we continued playing through to the end. We had some trouble with the final couple of boss battles, but we bested them in time and got to watch the ending. So yeah, we triumphed, but only after we wanted to pull our hair out because of the hidden entrance crap that sprung up out of nowhere. I still don’t know if there’s a clue somewhere that tells you  what you have to do at that pyramid to get inside, since now I don’t really pay attention to the game’s text. I know where to go, what to do, and that’s it. Maybe I should play through again sometime and see if the game gives a hint that we accidentally missed back in the day… or if the game was just being a douche nozzle.

Road Rash CD By Zebbe

Though very hard, the first Road Rash game was amazingly fun, had some riffing music and feels like a fresh game for being released in the early ’90s. The second game added two player modes and nitros and made it all better. The third game, while having awful music and digitized graphics, added more content and was also an hilarious experience with a friend. Skitchin, the rollerblades spin-off, was enjoyable in its own way and the grunge soundtrack literally rocked. So, with a lot of excitement, partially for the sake of the “beat-’em-all” challenge on the forums, I purchased Road Rash for the Sega CD, or Road Rash CD as we’ll call it to not confuse it with the first entry in the series.

It started promising with some fun, but grainy FMV sequences before and after each race, a licensed soundtrack of grunge bands of the early ’90s and for the first time many different characters to choose from. It also played like Road Rash should, and though it was more of the same in a typical CD format, it was what I had hoped for,at least for the first four levels.

Road Rash CD 3When I got to level five, the game became extremely unbalanced and unfair. I can’t comprehend what happened, but I’ll sum up all the issues. First of all, though you have a super bike, even the best one, it’s crap. It’s extremely easy to crash even at small turns, not to mention when you get kicked by the opponents, who all seem to have the feet of Chun Li. You can help avoid crashing a bit by letting go of the speed button, but it only helps marginally and it will let even the slowest opponents catch up to you and in worst case kick you down. The opponents by the way, can – as far as I know – for the first time in the series, steal your weapon without you even using it, which is unfair, to say the least. One time, it was so bad that when I stole my weapon back, a millisecond later when my driver was to pull the arm back with the weapon, it was stolen yet again! You will need that weapon, because with it you can beat down your opponents in two hits. Without it, it takes many more. And the best bike isn’t even very fast, so you can’t pass the opponents in the middle of the bunch very easily. You will spend a lot of time in the races fighting them and crashing. Another annoying thing on this level is the black cars, which can be hard to see because they are almost of the same colour of the road. Add a lot of crashes to that, which will many times lead to a wrecked MC or getting busted by the cops.

After that, get ready to try to skip two FMVs you cannot turn off which you are already sick of seeing before you can fail again. This, and the loading times will frustrate you even more. After a lot of failed attempts you will feel like you’ve had enough and turn off the console, because you realize there are better things to do than making yourself angry by playing something which should be fun.

Bottom lines are: this game pisses me off! Stick to the cart games or the real 3D versions it’s based on.

Faery Tale Adventure By Goldenband

I grew up in a very rural area on the outer edge of a small town, where civilization ended and nature took over. Within just a few hundred yards of where I lived, there were craggy hills, mosquito-infested swamps, babbling brooks, thick forests, creepy old graveyards, and roads that terminated abruptly in the middle of nowhere.

Walk a little way off the beaten path, and you might find an abandoned shack, stocked with unexpected treasure: say, someone’s long-forgotten stash of skunked beer, nudie magazines, and tabletop RPGs. Go in another direction and you might meet up with coyotes, find unexpected wild edibles, inadvertently trespass on some mad recluse’s land…

… or just end up with a nasty case of poison ivy.

If all this sounds a bit like an RPG, well, it kind of felt that way too. I miss those days of being able to wander into the wilderness, slowly learning how every boulder, decaying stone wall, or strange arrangement of felled trees could lead me to the next landmark. While occasionally I had a destination in mind, most of the time the point was really the act of traveling into the unknown, not knowing what might be out there, waiting to be found… and also knowing that whatever was out there, it wasn’t there merely to serve me.

Unfortunately, seldom do console RPGs evoke that same feeling in me. Too often, it feels like a game’s entire universe is servile and pre-fabricated, consisting of nothing more than a Skinner box attached to a series of plot points meant to carefully ferry me to an inevitable conclusion. Buildings, NPCs, dungeons, even monsters – all exist solely to serve the player’s narcissism, in a world that’s been built just for him (or her).

The Faery Tale Adventure, however, is another thing entirely. Its world is vast, open and empty, and stunningly indifferent to the player’s existence. While most games’ landscapes are dotted with endless signposts – cheerfully and firmly escorting you between pre-approved locations, like a North Korean tour guide – Faery Tale Adventure offers you nothing more than the occasional, meandering road that might or might not take you someplace of interest. It can take ten minutes or more to walk from one place to another, and with no glittering line telling you which way to go, it’s painfully easy to get lost just when you need something to eat or somewhere to sleep. The gargantuan world has huge areas that serve no real function in the game, including an entire, massive wing of one dungeon that has absolutely nothing you need, and triggers no plot points whatsoever. It simply is.

Most people would hate this sort of thing, and I can hardly blame them. Even the CRPG Addict, who perseveres through nearly every game on his list, soon bailed on the DOS version of Faery Tale Adventure, and now bristles when it’s mentioned. But having played through the game twice now, once a few years ago and once this year, I can say that no other game I’ve played captures that childhood feeling of walking into the wilderness quite as well. Despite the average presentation, and several other significant flaws, there’s a sense of naive wonder to Faery Tale Adventure that I find refreshing in a world of cookie-cutter RPGs.

So if you’ve ever been driving at night through some wild area, and suddenly felt tempted to park your car on the side of the road and wander into the fields, in search of something just out of reach…well, this might be the game for you. (And this way, you won’t get poison ivy.)

Starflight by James Villone

Recently I blasted off into Starflight more than ever before! I have owned the cartridge a couple years, but up till now, I had only put a little time into it, mining the home solar system and upgrading the ship a tiny bit. I had also flown around hyperspace, but I had never found much because I was not realizing that the big blue stars represent the other solar systems! Realizing this made the galaxy suddenly open up for exploration!

Starflight is a bit of an RPG, but more than that, it is a space simulation, known as the first example of such open-ended, nonlinear gameplay! There is little direction given, besides being prompted to explore the giant simulated galaxy, and somehow solve a larger mystery about why the suns are dying. While exploring, most planets can be mined for minerals, which are sold to make money, for buying upgrades to the ship. Some planets have alien wildlife to capture for cash, and there is also money to be made by discovering planets that are suitable for humans to settle on.

In revisiting Starflight this time around, I first focused on properly upgrading my ship, since my past expeditions had always been limited by its shortcomings: Problems such as low fuel, lame equipment, and my crew’s inability to properly translate aliens’ speech, when communicating with alien ships! So, I mined for minerals on different planets continuously, selling them at the space station, and using the cash to upgrade my ship and train my crew. I finally reached nearly optimal conditions, which takes a while, but is easy enough to do without traveling far, or without even leaving the home solar system. I bought good shields, engines, weapons, scanners, a lot of fuel, and I trained my crew to raise their levels to the limit. However, this is the only level-based gameplay in Starflight, so the RPG element seems largely finished at that point. Still, there is a huge galaxy to explore!

A message at the space station prompted me to explore some ancient ruins, which led to acquiring the first artifact needed to “beat the game.” But I did not receive messages for the other required items. I checked an online walk-through and found that the actual process of winning is very simple: Only three items are needed, and then one of them needs to be placed in a specific spot of a specific planet. Simple, but a person needs to find all the right hints by wandering through the vastness of space! I can imagine people sinking untold hours into this title if they were determined to figure everything out, without ever using a walk-through.

The scarcity and vagueness of the hints within Starflight suggest that this title emphasizes exploration more than its own plot! This is fine, because the galaxy remains fascinating to fly around. Instead of music, strange sound-waves echo through the cosmos, along with sound effects that are odd and futuristic.

As awesome as Starflight is, I found myself disappointed that there is not more to see! All the planets are covered with untamed wilderness, so there are no alien cities or civilizations to visit. And once the different alien species have all been interacted with, there is a sense of having seen just about everything this galaxy has to offer! I know I will revisit Starflight occasionally, just to relax while soaring through space, and chatting with the alien ships that turn up. As for wanting more content in a space sim, I might dust off that cartridge of Star Control that I have never given a chance yet!

One Comment

  1. Great articles! Nice reading as always.

    Regarding Starflight:
    It’s easily one of the best games I’ve played. Too bad you checked a walkthrough, because you may have spoiled all the fun 🙁
    There’s a lot going on in the game and the story is really good, but for that to really work out you really need to explore and try to establish contact to as many races and ships possible. The difficulty is well balanced, it’s not easy, but it’s also never frustrating. If you keep playing you beat the game eventually without having to resort to the internet or getting lucky. You’ll have a pretty good idea to where you need to go and what you have to do. Also, no need to fully upgrade your ship or fully train your crew before diving into the game, you just need to be careful, specially with fuel, at least in the beginning. I must have spent weeks playing Starflight in the run where I got to the end. I remember drawing the whole map on a sheet of paper and doing lots of annotations in a little notebook 🙂 I think I even manage to explore all the planets.

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