It’s that season again: the ‘year’ digit on the calendar has ticked over to a new number, it’s been a few months too many since I wrote a proper blog post… and it’s time to reflect on the past 12 months of discovering interesting old games.
My 2022 saw the launch of Games Bond, a deep dive into the Taito Egret II Mini, a quick look at the Mega Drive Mini 2, as well as finally tackling a handful of backlog games I’d been meaning to check out for years. As part of those endeavours, and elsewhere, I managed to have quite a few memorable first-time experiences.
So as the tradition calls for: in rough chronological order – Ten old games I really enjoyed playing for the first time in 2022:
ROLLING THUNDER 3 (Mega Drive)
I’ve been a massive fan of ROLLING THUNDER 2 ever since I was graciously gifted a copy of its Mega Drive port some 15 years ago, but for whatever reason I’d never gotten around to checking out the third game. It’s a peculiar game in that it’s a Japanese-developed Namco game released exclusively for the Genesis in North America, but its limited release is by no means indicative of the game’s quality – ROLLING THUNDER 3 owns.
RT3 doesn’t attempt to fix what isn’t broken, and the core walking & shooting gameplay is very familiar – and still really good. It does however feature some neat additions here and there, like a couple of driving stages, alternate weapons selectable before a mission, and enemies with more varied patterns reminiscent of the SHINOBI games.
ROLLING THUNDER 2 was great enough that a sequel wouldn’t have to iterate much to still be really good – and it could be argued that ROLLING THUNDER 3 in fact doesn’t do an awful lot to evolve the series. But it’s got a super cool atmosphere, a great variety in stages with some clever twists and set pieces, and an incredibly funky soundtrack. It’s probably the easiest game in the series as well – and that alone means I’ll likely be picking the game back up every now and then for a nice, comfy playthrough.
2022 saw the release of the Taito Egret II Mini, a very cool mini cabinet including a collection of 50 games from Taito’s history. I had an excellent time patching up a lot of knowledge gaps, and one of the first games to really catch my eye was VOLFIED.
A late sequel to the American-developed Taito oddball QIX, it makes the kind of updates you might expect from the time gap between 1981 and 1989 – the abstract vector visuals have been replaced with a grungy sci-fi aesthetic, and there’s a vast increase in variety both mechanically and visually. QIX was always a solid concept; as evidenced by the legitimately great GALS PANIC series (and even its various offshoots and knockoffs) – and VOLFIED provides a sort of missing link between the two.
Even though VOLFIED can offer neither the naked ladies nor the sheer nutso weirdness of GALS PANIC (or perhaps all of its gameplay improvements, to be perfectly frank), it does offer that distinct Taito je ne sais quoi: a really solid level of polish, with a slightly off-kilter vibe.
1994’s RAYFORCE is one of the newest games featured on the Egret II Mini, and unsurprisingly, one of the most impressive. It’s a game I’ve heard good things about for ages – and upon playing it, it’s immediately obvious why.
I’m not hugely into shoot ’em ups, and while I can acknowledge the design work that goes into enemy patterns and scoring systems, I’m not skilled or knowledgeable enough to really appreciate their finer nuances. RAYFORCE, however, is the kind of shoot ’em up that is instantly and relentlessly impressive to anyone even remotely poised to enjoy a shoot ’em up game.
Taito employed a lot of transparency and scaling effects in their early-to-mid ’90s games, and there’s probably no better showcase than RAYFORCE. It’s an absolute visual spectacle, filled wall-to-wall with extremely convincing fake 3D perspective effects, all in the midst of relentless action. And to be clear: far from being merely technically impressive, the craftsmanship and artistry on display in the designs, compositions and pixel art technique are all world class.
Few things fascinate me quite like that grey zone between 2D and 3D game art; whether it’s using 2D technology to fake 3D visuals, or vice versa – I think there’s just something really special about the artistic expression sort of transcending the boundaries and intended use of a particular technology. It’s fundamentally creative, and tends to result in something very visually distinct, whether we’re talking about SPACE HARRIER, GUILTY GEAR STRIVE, or indeed, RAYFORCE.
As best I can judge, RAYFORCE is a quality game beyond its accomplishments in presentation (I’d be remiss not to mention Zuntata’s excellent soundtrack which does keep even pace with the visuals) – but even if that’s all you’re getting out of it, it’s still one hell of an experience.
CHASE THE EXPRESS (PlayStation)
OK, so this one is technically a bit of a cheat as I did boot this game up and play a little bit of it a few years ago – but 2022 was the year I finally dove in and played it properly from beginning to end. And even though that first dabble with the game had already made a strong first impression, having played more of it I can confidently say it’s become one of my favourite PS1 games.
The setup is basically a riff on UNDER SIEGE 2: DARK TERRITORY – terrorists have highjacked a nuclear-armed, transcontinental high-tech super train, taking a group of VIP hostages in the process. It leans heavily into the Hollywood action thriller vibes, with that extra bit of delicious flavour that comes from being interpreted through the lens of Japanese game developers in the late ’90s.
On the surface CHASE THE EXPRESS may resemble METAL GEAR SOLID, but in terms of how the game plays it’s much closer to something like RESIDENT EVIL 3 or DINO CRISIS 2. The main objective is to make your way through the train, and that involves a good deal of navigating pre-rendered rooms, solving puzzles, managing limited resources – and a healthy dose of combat, including some pretty spectacular boss encounters!
The immediate thing that sets CHASE THE EXPRESS apart from other games featuring pre-rendered, fixed-camera backgrounds is its very clever use of panoramic renders for its environments. The camera technically never moves, but the view pans to follow your character as they move across the room, and you can even control the camera manually to scout ahead – which combines for a far more dynamic look and feel than any other game of this style I’ve ever played. The fidelity of the graphics are great as well – both the pre-rendered and real-time elements – and everything fits together seamlessly, making for an impressively polished presentation.
The polish goes far beyond the graphics too – CHASE THE EXPRESS is a fleshed-out, well-paced, and very entertaining game. The plot goes some interesting places, with some very fun twists and turns, including some cool set pieces. And despite being a mostly straightforward and linear action game, there’s a decent amount of secrets, branching story paths, and even a half dozen or so different endings – including an alternate “new game+” campaign to achieve the best ending. I could continue to gush about this game for days, but the long and short of it is: you should play it.
BURGER BURGER: HAMBURGER SIMULATION (PlayStation)
BURGER BURGER is a kind of game that I love – not exactly because it’s a business management sim, but because it has an incredibly niche and specific subject matter. BURGER BURGER strikes a nice balance: burger restaurant chain management is a unique theme for a game, but it’s not so invested in its niche that it’s impenetrable to anyone but the most hardcore of hamburger and/or business nerds.
Although the game had intrigued me for years based purely on its premise, part of why it took so long for me to take the plunge and pick the game up was that I expected it to be an intimidatingly complex game (and the language barrier also doesn’t help). But as it turns out, BURGER BURGER is pretty approachable, with simulation and strategy elements being a little less in-depth than I expected, and presentation being even more charming than I’d hoped.
Granted, I’m not going to pretend like it’s some simplistic children’s game for babies – I absolutely did manage to misinterpret some of the game’s mechanics and information, essentially dooming our hamburger empire from the start. Oops! But I did have a lot of fun playing the game, and even at the end of a failed campaign I felt like I’d learnt quite a bit about how the game works, encouraged to give it one more try.
There’s a satisfaction to figuring out the mechanics and strategies, developing new hamburger recipes is really fun, and some of the random event scenes were laugh-out-loud funny – so ultimately BURGER BURGER was a genuinely great time, and now I’m even more eager to give it another go, as well as check out its sequels.
TOUGI-OH: KING COLOSSUS (Mega Drive)
I had picked up KING COLOSSUS a few years ago, not knowing too much about it beyond that it’s an action RPG with a pretty cool vibe, and – perhaps most importantly for MD collecting these days – quite affordable. Once I’d gotten the game and it was more firmly on my radar, I did start to notice that people familiar with the game seemed to think very highly of it – and when I finally got around to playing it last year, it became immediately obvious why.
I went into KING COLOSSUS expecting a fairly basic game. Between looking at a few screenshots and skimming through the manual, I got the impression that it was heavy on the action and light on the RPG – basically going through a series of dungeons killing monsters, with gear and/or stats occasionally improving. That’s mostly accurate, but betrays how engrossing the game ended up being in its simplicity. The action gameplay feels great, there’s a nice variety in both environments and enemies, the soundtrack is absolutely fantastic, and there’s a surprising amount of really cool set pieces and boss fights.
Perhaps most surprisingly though, I actually found the narrative quite engaging. There isn’t a ton of dialogue or writing in the game, but it does its job well – it’s economical and effective at both setting the mood and the stakes, and the simple nature of the storytelling means that graphics, music and gameplay get to do a lot of the heavy lifting. There’s frankly nothing too remarkable about it, but it’s a tight package that’s well executed; and that really sums up the game very well.
KING COLOSSUS is essentially an action RPG with all the fat trimmed – there are no towns, no overworld, no real grinding or stat management to speak of, no side quests, and arguably, no frills. But what you’re left with is an incredibly tightly paced experience where almost every couple of minutes something new and cool happens, and there’s never time for the game to get stale or boring. I loved it, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone.
TOUCH MASTER 2000 (Arcade)
During 2022, I reached the milestone of 2000 followers on Twitch, and to “celebrate” I decided on a whim to play a bunch of games with the number ‘2000’ in their title. I dove into my MAME library and found various Korean bootlegs, which were interesting enough, but much to my surprise I also discovered a series of Midway arcade games I’d never heard of before.
TOUCH MASTER 2000 is a mini game collection, made for a bar top touch screen cabinet. In some ways, it’s exactly as exciting as you’d expect for that sort of thing – ie, not very – but the fact that it’s a Midway game definitely adds a significant element of interest and novelty, at least to me. Ever since childhood I’ve been a huge fan of Midway’s arcade games; they always seem to have a unique sense of spectacle to them, and even when they’re not very good games, they tend to leave a strong impression. So it was cool to discover one I’d never heard of!
I won’t pretend that TOUCH MASTER 2000 is some hidden gem, but as I was going through its various mini games, I did find that it’s got a bit more going for it than merely the novelty of seeing Midway-style digitized graphics in such a different context. There were some fairly uninteresting shooting galleries, but also some pretty cool arcadey takes on stuff like solitaire and other card games. Maybe it was a case of simply going in with no expectations, but I found significantly more to enjoy about TOUCH MASTER 2000 than I ever thought I would, and it’s got me quite curious to take a look at its numerous sequels as well.
EX-RANZA (Mega Drive)
2022 was apparently the year of mini-consoles for me, as in addition to the Taito Egret II Mini, I also got the Mega Drive Mini 2. Although my interest in these mini consoles is more the novelty and collectible factor than getting access to the games (that can obviously be done in many other ways), I do appreciate formally becoming a legal owner of a sought-after game even in digital form. This is definitely one of those games!
EX-RANZA seems scientifically engineered to become a niche, cult classic. It’s got incredible artistry and technical chops on display – but it’s finicky, difficult, and not particularly inviting. I think anyone who played this in the ’90s would’ve been impressed with it (unless part of the crowd who would unconditionally shit on anything that didn’t use polygons) – but I think the game’s just quirky enough to push a significant amount of people away, while becoming a total darling to a very particular, niche crowd.
It doesn’t quite have the levels of obtuse complexity you’d expect from something like a Treasure game or a pure mech simulator, but it’s certainly no CONTRA either. You do have to manage separate life bars for your robot form and vehicle form, keep track of and switch between multiple weapons, and – in some levels – keep an eye out for glimpses of sunlight to replenish your solar powered gear. In addition, your robot is fairly large for the room you have to maneuver, and perhaps not quite nimble enough to easily avoid the barrage of bullets, missiles and lasers constantly thrown at you.
For everything that makes EX-RANZA difficult, it’s undeniable that it adds a lot of texture to the experience, and ultimately, to the game’s appeal. I frankly haven’t spent enough time with the game to know if I’ll ever truly click with it, but even if it’ll never become a personal favourite, I have a very deep respect for the effort and craft that clearly went into it. It’s an extremely cool game, with easily some of the best pixel art on the Mega Drive – and without a doubt worth playing.
STAR MOBILE (Mega Drive)
A completely different type of discovery offered by the Mega Drive Mini 2 were the several “bonus games” included on the device – a collection of newly developed ports, new versions of existing games, and previously unreleased old games. STAR MOBILE is part of the latter category, so while technically it is a 2022 release, it’s a port of an X68000 game developed and planned for release in 1992, just quietly cancelled before it could reach shelves.
STAR MOBILE might not look like much, and it’s hard to say that it would’ve set the world on fire (The X68k and PC Engine versions that did come out didn’t seem to, after all), so I wasn’t expecting too much going in. Basically, the objective is to stack falling stars of different weights on a scale, trying to keep the scale balanced – losing balance means stars falling off screen, and too many stars falling off screen means game over.
The mechanics and rules aren’t as immediately self-explanatory as something like TETRIS or COLUMNS, but it’s not as overwhelming and hard to parse as KLAX or BLOCK OUT either. It’s tricky, but I found myself having a pretty good time, and soon enough the feeling of confusion started being replaced by the satisfaction of successfully forming and executing a plan. It really challenges your ability to quickly calculate and compare numbers, and before too long it does get deceptively complex. STAR MOBILE may not be a masterpiece, but it’s a neat little game that definitely made a far stronger impression than I expected. If you’re a fan of classic arcade puzzle games, it’s definitely worth checking out.
SUPER TETRIS 2 + BOMBLISS [Genteiban] (Super Famicom)
Sneaking in right before the end of the year, I got myself a handful of old games for Christmas, and one of them was another puzzle game: SUPER TETRIS 2 + BOMBLISS. Needless to say there are a lot of TETRIS games out there, and they are certainly not created equal. I wouldn’t describe myself as the biggest TETRIS connoisseur, but at one time or another I’ve found myself fairly addicted to TETRIS DS, PUYO PUYO TETRIS, and more recently, THE TETRIS EFFECT. On the flipside, I recall picking up TETRIS S for the Saturn in my early days of collecting, with the rationale of “there’s no way a TETRIS game can be bad, right?” – and being woefully underwhelmed.
I’ve only spent a tiny amount of time with SUPER TETRIS 2 + BOMBLISS, but so far it clearly appears to lean closer to the former end of that spectrum. As the title suggests it’s essentially a collection of two games, but each of them has several options in terms of game modes and rule sets, and shockingly, the cartridge even has a backup battery to store high scores, records, and progress in the BOMBLISS puzzle mode. It’s a humble-looking and fairly unassuming package, but it does what it sets out to do, and it does it well; short of any kind of story campaign or the like, it’s got just about anything you could expect or ask of a puzzle game in 1992.
I don’t think there’s much I can explain about how TETRIS works or what makes it fun, and I’m not sure I’ve spent enough time with BOMBLISS to really go too in-depth about its mechanics either – but suffice it to say, they are both polished, engaging, and highly challenging puzzle games. An easy recommend if you’re in the market, for sure.
I usually reserve this space for games that don’t qualify for the list on account of being new, but this year I was unusually torn on what to include on the list – despite at times wondering if I could even come up with 10 games worth discussing! So, I felt compelled to briefly mention a few more games that easily could’ve made the cut.
- THE FAIRYLAND STORY
- DEATH BY DEGREES
- MOBILE SUIT Z-GUNDAM
- SUPER SWIV
- TETRIS PLUS
- JAMES BOND 007: THE SPY WHO LOVED ME
- MAHOU NO SHOUJO SILKY LIP
As far as brand new releases that I played and enjoyed this year, here’s a couple that definitely warrant mention:
- FINAL VENDETTA
- TMNT: SHREDDER’S REVENGE
- THE KING OF FIGHTERS XV
- RETURN TO MONKEY ISLAND
- VAMPIRE SURVIVORS