Ten old games I really enjoyed playing for the first time in 2021

Hey, it’s a yearly tradition! Even after a full year of apparent inability to get even a single article written, I am once again compelled to document some thoughts on a handful of standout experiences I’ve had with old games in the past twelve months. With my backlog of old used games already being several hundred deep, I’d set out to cut down on game purchases in 2021, and with considerable amounts of time being spent with FINAL FIGHT, METROID and ONIMUSHA games, I was a little unsure I would even be able to come up with a full list of 10 memorable games – but after a bit of digging in spreadsheets and stream VOD archives, it turns out I was definitely worrying for nothing!

I definitely played a lot of interesting old games in the past year, but I was able to narrow it down, so let’s go: In rough chronological order – Ten old games I really enjoyed playing for the first time in 2021:

J.B. HAROLD: MURDER CLUB (PC Engine CD)

I’ve long been a fan of both detective mysteries and adventure games, so it would make sense that I’d be into detective adventure games. The J.B. HAROLD series has been vaguely on my radar for a long time (I even picked up a copy of BLUE CHICAGO BLUES a few years ago), but I had never gotten around to playing any of them. That finally changed when during a stream of checking out random PC Engine games, I decided to boot up MURDER CLUB on a whim, just to see what it was like.

The stylish intro instantly caught my attention – as expected with PC Engine CD games – but I was surprised how the game itself really had me hooked. It is of course a fairly primitive game as far as these things go – it’s a 1986 adventure game, after all – but aside from one game-breaking softlock bug I encountered (whoops), I never found the gameplay particularly tedious or annoying. By comparison, I was really excited to play the FAMICOM DETECTIVE CLUB remakes on the Switch, but with progression triggers being so arbitrary, I just found myself really annoyed with how much I felt I was fighting against the game, and how little I was feeling like a detective solving a mystery.

MURDER CLUB is not completely without such issues, granted, but at the end of the day I really enjoyed the game, and definitely want to check out more of the J.B. HAROLD series – and other classic detective games! Maybe 2022 will be the year I finally get into the JINGUJI SABUROU series…

MAD STALKER: FULL METAL FORCE (PC Engine CD/Mega Drive)

Fill-In Cafe’s seminal mecha beat ’em up MAD STALKER has long been considered somewhere between a cult classic, “hidden gem” and action masterpiece. Originally released for the Sharp X68000, it was subsequently ported or remade for the FM Towns, PC Engine and PS1 – all of them Japan-only and seemingly not produced in huge quantities. In an interesting development, 2020 saw the announcement and release of a “lost” Mega Drive port of the game; developed and planned for release in 1994, but cancelled before it could make it to market. Even it it’s arguably an inferior port, I jumped at the opportunity to own a copy of the game and got my hands on the MD version in early 2021.

MAD STALKER really is every bit as cool as you would imagine – it’s got a great 90’s anime aesthetic, chunky robots, and a kind of fighting game-esque combat system that makes it just as satisfying to play as it is fun to look at. The Mega Drive port misses out on the extra content added for the PC Engine CD version – the obligatory anime intro, voiced mission briefings between stages, CD music, etc – but it’s just as fun to play, and the FM soundtrack is an excellent recreation of the already awesome music from the X6800 original, so you’re hardly missing out there either.

MAD STALKER is a short romp, a brief but really fun experience – some might feel like the game doesn’t have quite enough meat on the bone, but I have to imagine that if I had the chance to play this on my Mega Drive in 1994, I would’ve been absolutely blown away! A quarter century later, I honestly don’t think it’s lost much of its luster – a masterpiece indeed.

FLASH HIDERS (PC Engine CD)

The PC Engine saw its fair share of VS Fighters in its library, both arcade ports and originals, and frankly a lot of them perform better than you might expect from what’s essentially a souped-up 8-bit console from the late 80’s. As usual though, the PC Engine shines the brightest when its unique strengths are at the forefront, and FLASH HIDERS is a great example of that.

Developers Right Stuff brought their penchant for fantasy RPG trappings and gorgeous anime aesthetics to create something that – while perhaps somewhat unremarkable as a fighting game – epitomizes what makes the PC Engine library so great. The character designs are fantastic, and they really come to life in the numerous and lengthy anime cinematics (which are hilarious to boot)! FLASH HIDERS doesn’t embarrass itself on the gameplay front by any means, but it’s definitely a game that feels greater than the sum of its parts. Its Super Famicom sequel BATTLE TYCOON is a decent game in its own right, but definitely suffers from missing out on the luxuries afforded by the PC Engine CD-ROM format.

DANCE! DANCE! DANCE! (PS1)

DANCE! DANCE! DANCE! was a surprising game in a lot of ways. First of all, it’s a Konami dancing game for the PS1 that’s not only completely unrelated to DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION and the BEMANI brand, it’s also weirdly obscure in general? Granted, it’s got an awfully unsearchable title, but even so I was surprised by how little media and coverage of this game seems to be out there. And it really deserves more of it!

Okay, so DANCE! DANCE! DANCE! may not be a game without issues. I’d maybe go so far as to say it’s completely understandable and maybe even justified how it was left to languish in obscurity while DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION as well as BUST A MOVE took the world by storm – but it’s got a lot of cool stuff going for it! DANCE! DANCE! DANCE! is a versus dancing game somewhat similar to BUST A MOVE but with a bigger emphasis on different musical/dancing styles, and with characters having more distinct gameplay styles/move lists much more akin to a fighting game. As such, the game requires a surprising amount of practice before you can play it proficiently – surely a kiss of death for any rhythm game trying to make a splash in the late 90’s – but it’s got a pretty cool system once you get the hang of it.

With the dancing mechanics arguably being the game’s weak point, there are plenty of things to like about DANCE! DANCE! DANCE! – perhaps most obviously it’s presentation! Even as a lesser release, it has all the polish you’d expect from a Konami game of the time, with some incredibly charming character designs, and unique stages to go with them. Craziest of all however, is the elaborate story mode – an RPG-tinged adventure mode where you build up an original character by learning different moves and dance styles from various dance teachers along the way. The game would still have been neat even without it, but the story mode is definitely the part that really makes me want to revisit DANCE! DANCE! DANCE! and give it a proper go in the future.

OMEGA BOOST (PS1)

OMEGA BOOST was a game I picked up among plenty of others, not knowing or even thinking much of it – but turned out to be filling in what had been a big blind spot I hadn’t even realised. Far from some obscure curiosity, OMEGA BOOST was published by Sony, developed by Polyphony Digital, released in North America as well as PAL regions, and – I would have to imagine – somewhat of a big deal at the time. It had however completely passed me by, but I was just as happy to go in blind and discover the game in 2021.

OMEGA BOOST is a sorta-kinda rail shooter; it’s got a bit more freedom of movement than something like SPACE HARRIER, but it’s still tightly designed arcade stages as opposed to open-ended exploratory spaces. Basically, it offers just enough dynamism to the character movement and camerawork to give the game the feel of dope-ass anime robot space battles, and it does so absolutely beautifully! All the crazy stuff happening on screen at once, the stunning visual effects, everything just comes together in a really amazing way that feels like it exceeds what the PS1 should be capable of, but simultaneously hard to imagine on any other console.

I have to admit to being fairly ignorant about what other games have done this succesfully (I have to imagine at least a few of the MACROSS or GUNDAM games on the PS2 are pretty decent), but I was definitely blown away by OMEGA BOOST’s presentation. It’s a really, really cool game that definitely makes me a bit sad that Polyphony have spent the following 20+ years doing nothing but boring car sims.

GENJI (PS2)

During 2021 I was able to make some minor dents in my massive backlog, and one of the games I decided to check out was 2005’s GENJI. I had picked this game up a year or two ago and was curious to try it; it seemed to be a game with a good reputation, even though I rarely heard anything specific about it – GENJI only ever seems to come up in the context of its much-maligned PS3 sequel, which would prompt comments like “oh hey, the PS2 one was pretty good though, wasn’t it?” and so on.

Well, I’m happy to confirm that it is pretty good. Pretty great even! GENJI is an impressively lavish production, a late first-party Sony release for the PS2 with seemingly no expense spared; the visuals are absolutely stunning, and the bombastic score sets the dramatic tone of the game beautifully. I’m not even a big fan of “cinematic” musical scores for games usually – and will gladly admit that I don’t think GENJI would suffer one bit from a little more electric guitar noodling – but the traditional orchestral score we got is still really great.

Of course, there’s a lot more to the game than its presentation – GENJI is an action game, and it absolutely delivers on the mechanical front as well. The combat mechanics are rather simple, but very engaging, and landing instant-kill counters feels absolutely amazing. The game also manages to squeeze in a couple of really fun and memorable boss fights, against both human opponents and incredibly designed mythological creatures. I love it!

ONIMUSHA 2 (PS2)

After finishing GENJI, I was feeling a slight itch for more supernatural samurai action, leading me to finally dig into the ONIMUSHA series. I played through all four mainline games, and although all of them were enjoyable in their own right, for me ONIMUSHA 2 stands head and shoulders above the others.

The original ONIMUSHA was cool, basically DINO CRISIS but with demon samurai stuff instead of dinosaur sci-fi, but definitely felt a little bit modest in scope, and frankly a little bit too reined in when it came to the supernatural aspects. ONIMUSHA 2 basically addresses all the issues I had with the original game – it’s got a much wider range of locales, the plot is more engaging, and most importantly: it’s got a lot more wild shit going on, conceptually and visually.

The latter can largely be attributed to Capcom hiring legendary artist and director Keita Amamiya (ZEIRAM, MIRAI NINJA, MECHANICAL VIOLATOR HAKAIDER) to design the game’s creatures and characters. While Capcom’s design team were certainly no slouches (Daigo Ikeno’s artwork for the game is gorgeous as well!), Amamiya’s design sensibilities pushes ONIMUSHA 2’s leagues beyond the frankly somewhat generic feel of what came before, and after.

In addition, the game also represents what is probably the pinnacle of Capcom’s style of static, pre-rendered backgrounds, as not long after this, ONIMUSHA, RESIDENT EVIL and DINO CRISIS all transitioned to fully realtime environments. Although probably the correct decision at the time – from a marketing standpoint – looking at ONIMUSHA 2 in 2021, it’s an absolutely gorgeous game with a far more interesting style than its sequels. Keita Amamiya’s designs do a lot, sure, but the technical execution of the graphics is just as impeccable.

AM2R (PC)

After 19 years of waiting, 2021 finally saw the release of METROID DREAD. Leading up to its release, I decided to revisit the previous chapters of the story – partially as an excuse to finally check out the much lauded fan-made METROID II remake, AM2R. I’d basically heard nothing but good things about it – as it turns out, deservedly so!

I can’t really judge AM2R’s quality or faithfulness as a remake, but simply judged as a METROID game, I really loved it. Fantastic presentation, excellent controls, a very well balanced challenge, and an overall vibe that feels simultaneously unique and entirely faithful to METROID. I’m sure some of the game’s structure and set pieces are inherited from the original, and it uses ZERO MISSION as a template for some aspects, but at the same time it stands clear that AM2R brings a lot of its own ideas to the table. Aside from being a well-designed game in general, it’s got a lot of little QoL enhancements that I think I’ll always miss in official METROID games from now on. Of all five METROID games I played through in 2021, AM2R is probably the one I’m the most excited to revisit.

R?MJ: THE MYSTERY HOSPITAL (Saturn)

A couple of years ago, I picked up JIKUU TANTEI DD: MABOROSHI NO LORELEI for the Saturn; a pretty wild CG first-person adventure game about a time-travelling vampire detective. I never finished the game, but really enjoyed what I played of it, and became an instant fan of developer System Sacom. Fast forward to 2021, and I got my hands on another one of their games – R?MJ: THE MYSTERY HOSPITAL – celebrated Halloween by playing it through on stream, and loved every minute of it!

R?MJ is the story of a group of young friends who – under mysterious circumstances – get trapped inside a hospital, and have work together to figure out a way to escape. The game is set during a deadly virus pandemic (!), so in between navigation and puzzle-solving, the player also has to dodge particularly infectious zones to avoid instant and gruesome death by way of melting from the inside. Great stuff!

While the mystery and horror trappings are pretty cool, it’s the completely buck wild conspiracy-turned-supernatural plot (paired with absolutely delightful mid-90’s CG) that really made me fall in love with the game. I’m not even sure I can say the game really starts off that restrained, but either way it definitely starts going off the rails pretty quickly – in the best way possible. I really can’t wait to get my hands on more of System Sacom’s games and hopefully play some of them in 2022!

CRAZY CLIMBER (Famicom)

It’s a well documented fact at this point that I’ve become a kind of CRAZY CLIMBER superfan – last year I’d became somewhat obsessed with CRAZY CLIMBER 2000, and throughout 2021 I had a blast with both the Super Famicom port of the arcade original, as well as HYPER CRAZY CLIMBER on the PS1. I decided to close out the year with a special theme stream checking out a bunch of CC games, and somewhat unexpectedly, the standout game turned out to be for the Famicom.

Released in 1986 – 6 years removed from the arcade release, and several years after most home ports of the original game – the Famicom CRAZY CLIMBER is essentially a full-on sequel. Adding content and features to home versions of arcade games was not uncommon in the mid- to late 80’s, and this game is a great example. Designed to be played with the d-pads of both controllers to simulate the arcade’s dual joystick setup, it retains the core gameplay very well, but after that any similarities end almost immediately.

The Famicom game adds not only a slew of new levels with new tile sets, there are also a massive amount of brand new obstacles, set pieces, power-ups and even hidden secrets! Even compared to all the later sequels, the Famicom CRAZY CLIMBER is impressively inventive and expands on the premise in a lot of interesting ways. I’m hard pressed to pick a favourite game in the series, but this is undeniably a really good one, and I absolutely would not hesitate to recommend it.


Honorable Mentions:

So this is where I rattle off a couple of actual new releases I played in 2021, that warrant some kind of mention. These are all games that occupied my mind for at least some part of the year, games I enjoyed and could possibly see myself writing something about… at some point. I didn’t play a ton of new stuff in 2021, but I did like these:

  • FIGHTS IN TIGHT SPACES
  • ANNALYNN
  • HITMAN III
  • METROID DREAD
  • SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY – THE GAME

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