Ten old games I really enjoyed playing for the first time in 2020

Just like last year (and I guess, every year?), I have not felt particularly compelled to put together any kind of “Game of the Year” article – partially because it’d have to be a woefully incomplete list given how many contemporary games I didn’t bother playing yet, but more so because I’m far more interested in championing the games that managed to make an impression on me without leaning on the novelty of being brand new. I play a lot of old games, and I go out of my way to procure games I’ve never played before (and in many cases, barely know anything about) – and although I’ve got my fair share of stinkers in my collection, whenever I get a batch of old games from Japan, more often than not at least one of them seems to really stick with me.

So here’s a look back at some of those games! Presenting, in rough chronological order – Ten old games I really enjoyed playing for the first time in 2020:

CRAZY CLIMBER 2000 (PS1)

Few games have occupied my mind this year quite like CRAZY CLIMBER 2000. Looking back I was a little surprised to realise I’d picked this game up as early as January, but it feels almost poetic to conclude that, yeah, this neat little game really has permeated all of 2020 for me. A simple but engrossing update to the 1980 Nichibutsu classic CRAZY CLIMBER, CC 2000 doesn’t necessarily do an awful lot to reinvent or shake up the formula, but frankly it doesn’t need to. It controls wonderfully, the new stage layouts create a lot of interesting variety, and the weirdly crude visuals only add to the game’s delightful comedic tone. I really love this game!

The game is definitely quite challenging – true to tradition – and the controls do take some getting used to. But I was honestly kind of surprised how quickly I started to get the hang of it, and with that, how the game started growing on me. I wouldn’t fault anyone for dismissing this game based on its weird look and how quirky (ie difficult) it is to control when you first touch it, but I would highly recommend sticking with it – once you do start getting to grips with CRAZY CLIMBER 2000, it’s really rewarding!

It’s a short game; four levels of increasing challenge and complexity, and if I had any complaints about this game I guess it might be that I wished there was a little more of it. Still, it’s a great little snack-sized arcade package, and getting to the point of actually clearing the game on one credit definitely takes some serious practice. Will I ever get to that point? Uncertain – unlikely even – but I do feel pretty excited about the idea of revisiting the game occasionally to at least get a little better at it and improve my high score just a little bit.

FIGHTERS’ IMPACT (PS1)

FIGHTERS’ IMPACT was another early 2020 pickup that really stuck with me throughout this year. It’s a great example of the wonderful 90’s anime aesthetic best exemplified by PS1 fighting games, with really fantastic character designs and gorgeous artwork. On top of that, it really is impressively well executed on a technical level as well! Character models are nicely detailed, backgrounds have a decent amount of stuff going on (even if they mostly impress by doing a lot with a little), and everything runs at a smooth 60 frames a second – not something you can at all take for granted with a VS fighting game on the PS1!

Although that stuff is more than enough to make me like a game, what really made FIGHTERS’ IMPACT stand out to me is how well it plays. More specifically, its surprisingly elegant and modern-feeling free-form combo system. The way you can kind of cancel anything into anything makes the game a lot of un, and reminds me of games like BREAKERS and the ASUKA 120% series – and I can’t think of many 3D fighters that fit that description.

CHIISANA KYOJIN MICROMAN (PS1)

As is so often the case, CHIISANA KYOJIN MICROMAN was a game I picked up not knowing an awful lot about it – other than a general appreciation of the game’s premise and having a very vague recollection of “I heard it’s supposed to be good”. Well, the game’s premise is rad – a fast-paced arcade action game based on (and lovingly celebrating) a classic 1970’s toyline – and as it turns out, the game is good!

Beyond its awesome presentation, melding 1970’s science fiction toy aesthetics with late 90’s CG and arcade bombast, MICROMAN delivers some interesting ideas even in a fairly simple action game package. The game is essentially a set of action/shooter encounters and boss fights on top of mostly static pre-rendered backgrounds – something like DINO CRISIS meets GUNGAGE, but structured and paced almost like ALIEN SOLDIER. It’s less intense or elaborate than probably either of those titles, but it’s very slickly produced and controls really well!

DOOM (PS1)

If any game embodies the phrase “needs no further introduction”, surely it’d have to be DOOM. One of the most ubiquitous, ever-present and infinitely familiar games of all time, there’s not much I – or anyone, really – can say about DOOM that hasn’t already been said. For what it’s worth however, the PS1 port is probably one of the more unique versions of the game, and hands down the best non-PC version from the 90’s.

I’d always heard this was a good port, and I was happy to discover that this still holds true 25 years (and a lot of DOOM ports) later. There are two main reasons I liked this game a lot. First, and perhaps most obviously, are all the unique additions and changes to the PS1 port. Coloured lighting, animated skyboxes, new sound effects, and the amazing new ambient soundtrack by Aubrey Hodges all combine to give the game a completely different atmosphere from the PC original. PS1 DOOM ends up feeling very eerie, and just as much of a horror game as an action game – something that really compliments the fact that it doesn’t run quite as fast or smooth as the PC version.

The other reason is something seemingly simple, but that really makes all the difference in the world – dedicated strafing buttons! Unlike any other contemporary DOOM ports (and most console FPS games for a long time), PS1 DOOM gives you full independent movement, turning and strafing controls, allowing you to circle strafe like the best of ’em. This one feature really make the game a joy to play, and outside the occasionally dicey frame rate in some of the more intense levels, the game never really feels too compromised or constrained by being on the PS1.

ALICE IN CYBERLAND (PS1)

By all accounts, there really shouldn’t be anything too special about ALICE IN CYBERLAND – it’s one of dozens if not hundreds of text adventures/visual novels either based on or styled after anime released in the 90’s. This one in particular had a bit of a cross-media promotion going for it, albeit short lived; the game released alongside (and features FMV footage from) a “Ep.1” OVA, but to the best of my knowledge no subsequent episodes were ever released.

The production values do come across in the game however – aside from high quality anime FMV sequences, the game features plenty of beautiful hand-drawn and pixel artwork, neat little mini-games, and a bunch of completely optional (but incredibly charming) side content – such as the absolutely incredible full-length karaoke performances!

And really, it’s that immense charm that manages to carry ALICE IN CYBERLAND. The premise of a group of high schoolers becoming super heroes to fight monsters on the internet is certainly cool, but it’s the wonderful aesthetics and charming dialogue that do most of the heavy lifting. Unfortunately I ran into some freezing issues not too far into the game (possibly related to PS2 incompatibility?), but I really look forward to revisiting this game to play through it in its entirety at some point.

DOUBLE DRAGON: THE REVENGE OF BILLY LEE (Game Gear)

2020 saw the completion of The Caped Crusade, and in the summer, a smaller-scale stream project in the form of the DOUBLE DRAGON Series Retrospective. I enjoyed this project a great deal, and as usual one of the greatest joys for me is to explore and try out (and show off!) more obscure and lesser-known ports and versions of games. I found a couple of gems hidden among the more known DOUBLE DRAGON games, but the one true stand-out has to be the Game Gear-exclusive THE REVENGE OF BILLY LEE.

Seemingly billed and marketed as a port of the 1987 arcade game, I was surprised to discover a completely original game, that – as you should probably expect from a DD game made without Technos’ involvement – has little to nothing to do with any of the series’ established characters or storylines. The titular THE REVENGE OF BILLY LEE is apparently to be taken out on various never-before-seen gangs, villains and monsters(?) for the disappearance of Billy’s twin brother Jimmy, and the game manages to go some fairly odd and unusual places in this pursuit.

DOUBLE DRAGON: TROBL is not a particularly competent beat ’em up, but it does have some genuinely cool stuff going for it. It’s got a huge amount of unique enemy and boss sprites, as well as an impressive variety of very detailed and nicely drawn backgrounds. And if that wasn’t enough, before everything is said and done the game even manages to go full Giger.

PITFALL 3D: BEYOND THE JUNGLE (PS1)

If CRAZY CLIMBER 2000 was the game that’s burrowed itself the deepest into my mind this year, PITFALL 3D just might be a close runner-up. I picked this game up on a whim this summer, as I’ve become kind of obsessed with the idea of checking out reboots, remakes and years-removed sequels, and how those types of games have evolved over the decades. PITFALL is pretty interesting in that regard as it’s an old enough game to have received a number of reboots which are different from one another, and at this point decades-old themselves.

PITFALL 3D is one such game, and I greatly enjoyed playing through this game both from an academic standpoint, but also in terms of pure entertainment value. If anything what really struck me while playing this game, is that for a 1998 release, it really felt decidedly old-school. As kind of a “second-generation” 3D platformer, it came out well after the pioneers had started to figure out things like controls and camera, but where other games may have sought to push the envelope, PITFALL 3D is kind of impressively reigned in; and for my money the game is better off for it.

There’s no open world map, there are no analogue movement or free camera control, there’s no collecting items to unlock new levels, or anything like that – it’s just a straight up action platformer where your objectives never get more complex than reaching the level’s exit and getting a high score. PITFALL 3D does deliver well on this simple premise though; stages are fun to navigate, and the strictly restrained movement and camera makes the platforming a lot more straightforward and less annoying than in most 3D platformers. It’s got some cool atmosphere as well, and despite most areas being some sort of caves or ruins, there is a surprising amount of variety in the levels. The game even manages to throw in a handful of fairly elaborate boss fights, which re-contextualise the game’s mechanics to make for some pretty memorable set pieces. Good stuff!

AERO DIVE (PS1)

AERO DIVE was yet another in the long list of games I picked up more or less sight unseen, entirely based on the novelty of its premise: it’s an arcade-style, head-to-head skydiving game. I was actually expecting something more simulation-heavy, but that really falls on me not realising this game was developed by METRO Corporation, makers of some pretty sweet arcade games in the 90’s (including GUNMASTER), but perhaps most famously the BUST A MOVE games for the PlayStation.

The latter is actually maybe the closest point of comparison I can think of in terms of how AERO DIVE plays. It’s not quite as heavy on the rhythm-matching aspect, but it’s otherwise quite similar; you have to follow increasingly complex and fast-paced button prompts to outperform your opponent, while either side can perform “attacks” to throw a spanner in the works.

Overall, the game is not incredibly complex, but just like BUST A MOVE is still a good time despite not being the most sophisticated rhythm game, AERO DIVE feels satisfying to play and gets a lot of mileage out of its very slick presentation and awesomely hot jams.

SPY HUNTER (PS2)

SPY HUNTER turned out to be a kind of accidental discovery – I was vaguely aware that there had been a PS2/Xbox SPY HUNTER reboot starring The Rock; a tie-in game for a movie that ended up never being produced. Coming across a Japanese copy of SPY HUNTER on PS2 for a cheap price I didn’t hesitate to pick it up, unaware that it was a completely different game! It had sat on my shelf for months, if not even longer, before I bothered doing a little bit of research to learn that there’s not one but three 3D SPY HUNTER games in the 2000’s – prompting a series mini-marathon where we played through all three of them on stream.

While I may have things to say about SPYHUNTER 2 and SPY HUNTER: NOWHERE TO RUN as well, the stand-out game was hands down the first, 2001’s SPY HUNTER.

I will admit to not having a particular knowledge or affinity for the 1983 arcade original, but the premise kind of sells itself, right? You’re a top secret agent driving a tricked-out transforming supercar with a bunch of cool gadgets and weapons. Granted, the sequels did manage to kind of bungle it… but the 2001 game nails it. Short but intense, varied, and well-designed racing missions with a bunch of neat mission objectives, and a gameplay structure that strongly incentivises mastery through repeated play – SPY HUNTER is a driving game built to my tastes for sure.

TOURNAMENT CYBERBALL 2072 (Arcade)

TOURNAMENT CYBERBALL 2072 really was two things to me this year: firstly, one of the greatest hurdles to overcome in my impromptu quest to get every Achievement in MIDWAY ARCADE ORIGINS, and secondly, the next step in my journey towards some day being able to make any god damned sense of American Football video games. As a European, this sport and its video game adaptations have always been something that’s eluded me, and it’s always seemed kind of puzzling to me how this convoluted, diagram menu-driven sports simulation apparently makes for one of the most broadly-appealing, mainstream popular video game genres on the other side of the Atlantic.

In my more general pursuit of greater knowledge and understanding of video games and video game culture from around the world, I’ve thus begun to feel a compulsion to get to a point where I can better understand (and eventually enjoy!) football games. I don’t know that I’m there yet, exactly – my attempts at both BLITZ: THE LEAGUE and JOE MONTANA II: SPORTS TALK FOOTBALL in recent memory both ended mostly in disaster – but at the very least CYBERBALL managed to provide a virtual football experience that I had a lot of fun with. Granted, yes, I had to stick to the beginner mode, and a very limited selection of already narrowed down plays that I could at least sort of comprehend – but dammit, I did manage to not only mostly understand what I was doing, but also score at least two consecutive touchdowns!

I’m still looking forward to finding more opportunities to explore football video games, and hopefully learning to better appreciate both the sport and its digital counterpart along the way. But whether or not I’ll ever really get the hang of it, TOURNAMENT CYBERBALL 2072 will probably stand out to me for a long time as a great entry-level game both for being approachable and straightforward fun, but also for its awesome, futuristic setting and atmosphere.


Honorable mentions

I did of course manage to play some new (ish) games this year as well. These probably deserve a proper write-up at some point (at least one of them got one!), but until I might get around to it, I wanted to at least shout them out in some form.

  • HUNTDOWN
  • DOOM ETERNAL
  • SHADOW GANGS
  • STREETS OF RAGE 4
  • DEMON’S TILT
  • TONY HAWK PRO SKATER 1+2
  • STAR WARS: JEDI: FALLEN ORDER

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