International Karate Plus, Game Boy Advance

This handheld conversion of Archer Maclean‘s classic IK+ was published in 2002 by Ignition Entertainment and is generally quite excellent.

The only real complaint I have is that the fighters are slightly oversized (in relation to the backgrounds), although you probably wouldn’t notice unless you’d played the C64 version, or Amiga/Atari ST versions. Those of us who have played the earlier versions might be slightly irked by this scaling discrepancy, because it gives the player less room to fight in. Does this affect gameplay adversely in this GBA conversion? No, no really. Yes, there is less room to fight in, but International Karate is more about close-quarters combat, and timing your moves correctly, than jumping all over the shop like in Street Fighter II. So the oversized characters aren’t really a major problem.

This GBA conversion seems to have more responsive controls than previous versions, probably because it runs at a higher frame rate. I’m not entirely sure if that’s true of not. One thing is true: IK+ on the GBA runs at a blistering pace. Later levels require zen-like skill to beat and are often over in seconds.

IK+ is excellent on the Game Boy Advance, although does have limited appeal. It is a game you can pick up, play and enjoy at any time, though.

More: International Karate Plus on Wikipedia

Kung-Fu Master, ZX Spectrum

This terrible Spectrum conversion of the mighty arcade game, Kung-Fu Master, was developed by Ocean and published by US Gold in 1986.

It contains none of the thrills of the original arcade game… The animated figures in the game are slow, badly-drawn and badly animated. When anyone raises a leg in the game – to make a high kick – it looks more like they are trying to squeeze out a tricky fart than kick anyone… And that includes you. The animation is pathetic. The colour clash is also bad. As is the (part-time) scrolling. The sprites have a horrible, distracting judder too. It wouldn’t have hurt to use a few different colours to differentiate the levels too – they all look the same…

The gameplay is also a pale imitation of the original, which requires precision, skill, and good timing to beat, and is fun to play. This is just a turgid shuffle through a soup of frustration and slowness.

There are some great arcade conversions on the ZX Spectrum. Kung-Fu Master isn’t one of them.

More: Kung-Fu Master on Wikipedia

The Evil Dead, Commodore 64

Another great film turned into video game kitty litter! This one in 1984, by Palace Software.

The interpretation is as an overhead survival game, with you playing Ash (spelled incorrectly in the game – slap on the wrist to the programmer!) who is besieged by Kandarian demons inside a remote log cabin. You can close the doors and windows to stop the demons getting in, and must also kill any that make it into the cabin. To kill them you must first find a weapon (randomly located around the cabin, or outside), and then use it on them. Whether it’s an axe, a sword, or a shovel – it makes no real difference – the effect is the same. Eventually, when you’ve killed enough demons, the ancient Book of the Dead will appear and you have to throw it into the fire to triumph.

As a huge fan of the 1981 film I’ve always thought that this game was total and utter rubbish. I remember as a young gamer hoping that it would be good enough to buy, but I read the reviews and thought “there’s no way I’m buying that!”. And I was right. The graphics are pathetic, the cabin is tiny, and the gameplay is clumsy and repetitive. There’s no escaping the fact that The Evil Deadthis Evil Dead (there are others) – is both a missed opportunity, and a steaming pile of crap.

Are there any positives about the game? The intro sequence and tune are quite nice. The scrolly text message at the bottom of the screen describes the monsters as “mutants”, which is sure to piss off any die-hard Evil Dead fan who reads it. Other than those like me who don’t really give a toss.

A BBC Micro version of The Evil Dead was also released by Palace. A ZX Spectrum version was developed and completed, but was never released as a stand-alone game. It later appeared as a freebie on the b-side of another Palace release: Cauldron, so eventually made it out.

More: The Evil Dead on Wikipedia

Touch the Dead, Nintendo DS

Known as Dead ‘n’ Furious in Europe, but I’m going with the North American title for this Nintendo DS rail shooter – a touch-screen tribute to Sega‘s infamous arcade game House of the Dead. Only the title reference doesn’t work properly because there’s no “of” in it… I would’ve gone for ‘Touch of the Dead‘, which doesn’t really make sense but is better than what they used, because it at least references the original game properly. Anyway…

So a touch-screen House of the Dead? That should work okay, shouldn’t it? The DS has got a stylus, and the idea is to simply touch where you want to shoot. You don’t directly control the movement of your character (a prisoner), although you can occasionally choose the direction of travel. Some branches being easier than others.

Where Touch the Dead falls down for me is with gun reloading. The game was criticised at the time of release for the way you have to drag a clip onto the magazine, which works okay for me, but what I didn’t like was that you then have to wait for the reload animation to complete before you can shoot. Which takes too long. Either drag the ammo and you’re reloaded, or have the reload animation – not both! It feels like you’re being penalised by having to wait twice…

Touch the Dead is not a bad game, but it is both limited and lacking the graphical detail we’ve come to expect from the House of the Dead series. And I’m willing to bet there are better rail shooters on the DS.

More: Touch the Dead on Wikipedia

Stonekeep, PC

Stonekeep is a strange first-person Role-Playing Game, developed and published by Interplay Productions in 1995.

I say “strange” because Stonekeep comes from a time when developers were looking for any excuse to inject some full-motion video into their games, and Stonekeep uses digitised video quite a lot, and it now looks very dated. Actually, Stonekeep uses two very dated graphical techniques to create the world you’re exploring – the second technique being Silicon Graphics-rendered graphics (the first being the aforementioned digitised video technique, a la Mortal Kombat). It’s the clash of the bad graphics techniques…

The way the digitised video has been used in the game means that a lot of the characters and monsters in it look kinda like pantomime villains… Well I felt like I was playing a pantomime fantasy game with Stonekeep… The visual style of this game reminds me of that TV show, Knightmare – the one that superimposed live actors over painted fantasy backdrops… That’s what they tried to do with this game – film people in costumes and incorporate them into a Role-Playing Game… And the end result is a bit of a weird mess!

In spite of the outdated presentation Stonekeep plays excellently. Movement is quick and simple, and is tile-based. A journal keeps track of quests, items, maps, stats and available spells (which are cast using runes inscribed on wands). Combat is real-time; similar to that seen in the mighty Dungeon Master. Quests and puzzles are fairly simple – mostly unblock a route or kill a bad guy – although there are a few surprises along the way that take Stonekeep beyond the merely ‘generic’.

I wouldn’t say that Stonekeep is a ‘solid gold classic’, but I would recommend that RPG fans give it a try. Or even better: play it to the later stages at least, because that’s where it gets more interesting. That said: if you have a low tolerance for goblins, faeries, and ice queens then maybe this game isn’t for you…

Stonekeep is a game that doesn’t deserve to be forgotten and does have its moments, even though the story and setting are a little trite. Don’t let me put you off though – Stonekeep plays nicely in DOSBox and is cheap on GOG.com and is well worth adding to the collection.

More: Stonekeep on Wikipedia
GOG.com: Stonekeep on GOG.com

Fallout 4, PC

The fourth Fallout was released by Bethesda in 2015, some seven years after Fallout 3, and five years after Fallout: New Vegas. In fact: I would call this the fifth Fallout game, because Fallout: New Vegas was more than just game number 3.5, in my humble opinion – it was the best game in the entire series. But anyway… What do I know?

What Fallout 4 retains from the previous games it benefits from (like lockpicking, hacking, and companions, which are essentially the same), and what Fallout 4 loses from the previous games it also benefits from too. Excepting for maybe the Perk Chart, which I found to be a big step backwards, usability-wise, in Fallout 4.

That ‘blip’ aside, I love the sparse and refined interface of Fallout 4; the story and conversations are simpler and more realistic; and ‘crafting’ has taken on a whole new meaning this time around. New additions to the gameplay, such as building and defending settlements, the use of power armour, and manufacturing helper robots, I think are all excellent. Although base-building in Fallout 4 is not perfect (trying to get fencing to connect up is a bitch), the fundamentals behind it work very well and add another dimension to the Fallout experience.

Of course, Fallout 4 is all about chasing quests, gaining and using experience points, playing politics with different factions, and hoarding every piece of tech and weaponry you can get your hands on. Exploring the crumbling, post-apocalyptic Boston, Massachusetts yields many surprising moments.

What I love most about Fallout 4 is the world itself. And the atmospherics. The effort Bethesda has made to create a believable, destroyed world is remarkable. The use of light/dark; coloured lighting; weather effects; music and sound effects all combine to make something really worth experiencing. On normal difficulty Fallout 4 is a challenging game – that I like too. At times the enemies in the game can be utterly ruthless and punishing (try meeting an Assaultron Demon and its friends when you’re lower levelled and see what you think of that experience…), and there are many unique monsters in the game that are way beyond your initial capabilities and who will mince you for dinner without warning if you make a mis-step. Which is all part of the Fallout RPG experience – fear, followed by eventual domination (when you go back to get your revenge later). And – there being no real level cap this time – you could in theory just keep on surviving indefinitely.

At times Fallout 4 can be frustrating. A game this big and complex is going to have some bugs, and I did experience a couple that broke my game (which I had to use to the console to fix), which nobody wants to do, but at least a fix was available, saving hours of gameplay that I’d otherwise have to re-do. I also think that the item management is still not quite as good as I’ve seen in other games. Organising items can be quite tiring in Fallout 4 and a few tweaks to the menu system might have made it a lot easier. But overall: I don’t want to complain about it too much, because I really enjoyed playing Fallout 4.

Where would I put Fallout 4 in my list of best Fallout games? Is it better than Fallout: New Vegas? Mmm. I would probably put it joint top with Fallout: New Vegas. In some respects, Fallout 4 is better, but in other respects: not. The story/characterisation and world-building in Fallout 4 are outstanding. There’s no doubting that.

More: Fallout 4 on Wikipedia
Steam: Fallout 4 on Steam

100 Best Level-Grinders Of All-Time

100 Best Level-Grinders Of All-Time

Double Dragon, Arcade

Released into arcades in 1987 by Technos Japan, Double Dragon is a legendary one or two-player scrolling beat ’em up, starring twin brothers – Billy Lee and Jimmy – who are on a rescue mission for Marian – Billy’s girlfriend who has been kidnapped by a gang of thugs called The Black Warriors.

This double team punch and kick (or headbutt) their way through four different stages, a city slum, a factory, a forest, and a gang hideout. On the way they can pick up weapons such as baseball bats and whips and use them on seven different types of enemies.

What is interesting about Double Dragon is that if both players make it to the end, they must then fight each other for the affections of the rescued girl! Considering that it was Billy’s girlfriend they were supposed to be going in to rescue, it makes his twin brother’s challenge all the more incendiary. Families, eh? You can never predict them…

Double Dragon is a retro-gaming classic that is still great fun to play now.

More: Double Dragon on Wikipedia