Monday, July 29, 2013

The 50 Greatest Sega CD Games of All-Time! (PART ONE: #050-to-#041)

A Five-Part Series Counting Down the Greatest Games the Sega CD Had to Offer!

Hey You! Looking for the Previous Installments in this Series?

PART ONE, counting down games #050 to #041, can be found right here.
PART TWO, counting down games #040 to #031, can be found right here.
PART THREE, counting down games #030 to #021, can be found right here.
PART FOUR, counting down games #020 to #011, can be found right here.
PART FIVE, counting down games #010 to #01, can be found right here

For what it’s worth the Sega CD (known as the Mega CD in Europe) might just be the single most underrated console in the history of video gaming. Considered a proverbial laughingstock by gamers that have hardly spent any time at all with the system, the Sega CD was actually a pretty damn good little console, stocked with plenty of killer console exclusives, graphically and musically superior special editions of 16-bit classics, and even a couple of standout genre offerings that, sadly, have become outmoded in today’s all-too-familiar virtual world. Come on, you know you miss side scrolling shoot ‘em ups and digital comic books as much as I do…

After tackling a list of the best the Sega Dreamcast had to offer, I thought long and hard about which console I wanted to focus on for my next countdown. Seeing as how the unsung, unheralded Sega CD generally gets about as much recognition and praise as gonorrhea, I figured the criminally underappreciated console was absolutely perfect the “Top 50” treatment. For those of you that had the honor of owning and playing through some of these classic games (many of which remain under-the-radar gems to this day), consider this a fond recollection and celebration of what once was, and for all of you young whipper snappers that equate the console with “pure fail?” Something tells me that’s a tune you’re going to change in a hurry after seeing everything you’ve missed out on.

As for the criteria for the list, I was pretty lax and subjective. Ever the jingoistic American that I am, I decided that only games that were given North American releases, while the Sega CD was still in production, should qualify as candidates, so no obscure-ass Japan-only SHMUPs or home-brew RPGs some dude made in his basement in 2008 are in contention here.

As always, the opinions expressed herein are solely my own, and your list would surely differ. That said, whose ready to take things to THE NEXT LEVEL?

Sewer Shark

You know, nobody in their right mind is ever going to consider “Sewer Shark” to be a good game, by any stretch of the imagination. Hell, considering the ultra-simplistic game play involved with the experience, there are sure to be scores of folks out there that don’t think “Sewer Shark” is meaty enough as interactive experience to even be considered a “video game” in the first place. That said, “Sewer Shark” remains an iconic title that, for better or worse, has become emblematic of what the Sega CD was all about, and no countdown of the console’s 50 best games would be complete without it’s presence.

I guess the best way to describe “Sewer Shark” is “Top Gun” meets “C.H.U.D.” with a healthy bit of “Weekend at Bernie’s” thrown in for good measure. In the full motion video (FMV) offering -- which, eventually, came bundled with the Sega CD itself -- you take control of this really grainy looking, cyber-punk style amphibious vehicle and blast your way through some very skuzzy, brown and grey environments while a higher-up barks directional commands at you. So, yeah, it’s basically nothing more than a glorified game of “Simon Says” at certain junctures, but that’s not to say that there isn’t a modicum of fun to be had, either.

As a fairly primitive first person shooter, however, it’s actually somewhat competent, and the game’s quirky humor and B-movie “plot” is strangely endearing. Of course, it’s not a very challenging game (at all), and even novice gamers could probably blow through the experience in about an hour, but just for the sheer absurdity and nostalgia of it all, it’s probably worthy of at least one play through. That, and the credits on this one are just crazy. I mean, how could you possibly resist a game that features music from that one dude from Devo, special effects by the guys that made “Critters” and features the guy that voiced Harvey Bullock on the ‘90s Batman cartoon as the central villain?

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Eye of the Beholder

A lot of people consider the Westwood Associates developed “Eye of the Beholder” to be one of the greatest RPGs on the Sega CD…you know, like that’s such a deep pool to be swimming in to begin with. While it’s certainly a solid game, with some neat music and decent graphics, I don’t think it’s necessarily the be-all, end-all role-playing magnum opus some make it out to be. Even so, it’s still an undeniably fun game, and one of the better dungeon-crawlers to be found during the timeframe.

One area that most certainly is not up for debate is the greatness of the game’s soundtrack. With a downright thumping, techno-esque score by video game legend Yuzo Koshiro, there’s no doubt that you will be bobbing your head while slaying orcs and looting dungeons for gold pieces. If for the music alone, it’s certainly a better iteration of the game than the Super Nintendo iteration, which was handled by Capcom (and if you were wondering, Sega itself was responsible for handling this port right here.)

The graphics are actually quite good, and the gameplay -- although a little repetitive -- is also fine-tuned and deeply satisfying. Of course, there are some downsides; the story is formulaic, there’s not a whole lot of character customization options and the big kicker, the inherent clumsiness of playing a point and click adventure with a directional pad. Even so, it’s a really enjoyable  game, and a title well worth playing if you are a hardcore AD&D junkie. And hey, did I mention how awesome that music was?

Ecco: The Tides of Time

I have never, nor do I ever plan on becoming, a huge fan of the “Ecco” series, but in some ways, I suppose you could call the “Free Willy”-inspired franchise something of a guilty pleasure. While “The Tides of Time” is mostly just a rehash of the original “Ecco the Dolphin” -- hell, most of the same graphics and sound effects are recycled here -- the game remains largely entertaining, and some of the new gameplay features are…gasp…actually sort of cool.

The controls in “Tides of Time” are more or less identical to the controls in the first game, so experienced Ecco enthusiasts ought to have no troubles at all getting their fins wet with this one. Similarly, the game employed the very same metrics (the health bar and the air meter, most significantly) from “Ecco the Dolphin,” and as an added bonus, you actually begin this game with two of the most powerful upgrades from the original already mapped to your repertoire. And if that wasn’t enough, the game includes an oblique nod to the beloved “Altered Beast” series, with a new game play mechanism in place that sees your eponymous porpoise transforming into a variety of sea creatures, including jellyfish, seagulls and even a freaking shark (which, unofficially, makes this the best “Jaws” game ever by default.)

As far as some of the other “tweaks,” however, I’m still not a very big fan. For one, I HATED those 2.5D vertically-swimming (as opposed to vertically-scrolling levels,) which were sort of like the ring challenges in the much, much detested “Superman 64.” And the less said about those stupid escort missions, I assure you, the better. Alas, even with those sidesteps taken into consideration, “Tides of Time” isn’t a bad game, and that funky soundtrack -- think, a cross between DJ Shadow, Yanni and Tangerine Dream -- clearly makes this one a much superior title than the comparably dry and sandy Genesis version.

Bill Walsh College Football CD

“Bill Walsh College Football ‘95,” as we all know, is one of the absolute best football games of the 16-bit era. While this Sega CD re-do of the first “Bill Walsh” game isn’t quite as awesome as it’s Genesis successor, there’s no denying that this collegiate pigskin sim is a thoroughly fun title -- especially since the audio capabilities of the hardware actually allow for REAL school fight songs and not just those cruddy MIDI files were used to with most 16-bit sports games.

The gameplay, for what its’ worth, is identical to the Genesis version, and the graphics really aren’t all that improved from the cartridge-based game, either. That said, it’s still an immersive, enjoyable football sim with a ton of teams to choose from and some very robust playbooks -- considering this game came out in 1993, I think oust modern gamers would be utterly shocked by the wide array of options the title offers you.

That said, there are still quite a bit of peculiarities on display. For one, one, some of the official team names aren’t included, so if you want to have a throw down between Ohio State and Notre Dame, you’ll just have to suffice for a “Columbus” vs. “South Bend” match-up instead. And considering that the Genesis was capable of providing fairly respectable play-by-play audio, there’s really NO excuse for this game to lack running commentary. Everything considered, though, “Bill Walsh” is still a really enjoyable little sports game, however, and it’s far and away the best American football title to be found on the console.

Chuck Rock II: Son of Chuck

If you got around as a platforming fan in the early 1990s, you probably stumbled upon “Chuck Rock” on the SNES or Genesis. By and large, it was a fairly forgettable, albeit harmless little hop and bopper - - well, unless you get really offended by games in which your primary attack looks hilariously like an overweight caveman thrusting his junk up against enemies like or something.

On the surface, “Chuck Rock II” bares an uncanny resemblance -- both graphically and conceptually -- to the “Bonk” series on the Turbo-Grafx 16. That said, “Chuck Rock II” is actually a pretty enjoyable, if not derivative platformer with lots of neat environmental effects, vivid visuals, and even a couple of entertaining and unique boss fights.

The music in the title may fluctuate from just OK to irritatingly saccharine, but the sound effects are actually really good. The animation is nice, and the overall graphical quality is much better here than it is on the Genesis or Super Nintendo versions. It’s a pretty short affair (most gamers could blast through it in an hour or so), but that’s not to say there aren’t a few challenging sections here and there. “Sonic CD,” this one may not be, but as a standalone platformer, it’s actually one of the more enjoyable offerings to be found on the console.

FIFA International Soccer

Admittedly, this game would probably be ranked a whole lot higher if it weren’t for the existence of a certain other footy game, which, SPOILER, ranks very, VERY high on this countdown. Even so, there is a lot to like about Electronic Arts’ soccer sim, beginning with the impressive (for its time, at least) audio.

Known as “FIFA International Soccer Championship Edition” in the PAL region, this version is more or less a highly polished version of the Genesis release “FIFA International Soccer” (hence, the namesake, I suppose.) As with cartridge-based game, you get tons of game play options here, and with it, a wealth of teams to select -- which, in turn, provides an almost endless array of roster tweaks and substitution possibilities. Of course, the big selling point here is the greatly improved audio. You may not think that something as simple as real crowd noises would improve the overall quality of a game, but trust me: the awesome audio atmospherics here -- complete with soccer chants and the occasional bull horn blurt -- make the game infinitely more engaging and riveting.

The only real downside to the game -- and it may be a backbreaker for some -- are the game’s lengthy load times. Granted, it may not take as long as some first-wave PSP games to boot up, but if you’re itching to hop right into the pitch, you may be turned off considerably by the waiting time. Overall, though, “FIFA” is a really enjoyable soccer title, and if you’re a hardcore footy fanatic with an operational Sega CD in your possession, it’s definitely a must-own.

WWF Rage in the Cage

As far as I know, “Rage in the Cage” is the only pro wrestling game released on the Sega CD. While it’s not necessarily a grappling classic on par with the “Fire Pro” series offerings of the timeframe, it really isn’t a bad little title considering its own merits, either.

Granted, the game is more or less a slightly refurbished version of “Royal Rumble,” a popular 16-bit WWF-branded game on the SNES and Genesis -- which, admittedly, was a pretty good little grappler by its own right. That said, there are a lot of neat tweaks to the already-solid game engine including the inclusion of mid-90s ‘rasslers like The Headhunters and Kamala, who -- and I could be wrong here -- never made any additional appearances in officially licensed WWF games throughout the decade. Add to the mix several “exclusive” game modes, including a pretty fun steel cage option and a “brawl” mode that allows you to fight dirty as a mofo sans referee repercussions, and you wind up with a pretty respectable little title that, at the time, featured more playable characters than any other wrestling game out there.

Of course, there were some anomalies at play, however. For one, even though the game included several tag teams, the game, inexplicably, lacked a tag team mode, and even though the title contained some full motion wrestling clips -- with in-ring audio introductions by Howard Finkel, no less -- the game utilized chip tune versions of the wrestlers’ iconic theme songs. That’s right, folks -- for whatever reason, LJN decided to use MIDI music for its CD-based software!

Keio Flying Squadron 

Imagine, if you will, a 2D version of “Panzer Dragoon Orta,” only developed by Treasure and incorporating some of the zaniest, bullet-hell gameplay this side of “Cho Aniki.” What sounds like an LSD trip mixed with a stomachache is actually one of the system’s greatest unsung SHMUPS -- a wild, wooly side-scrolling shooter with tremendous music, intense action and some really, really annoying and overlong FMV sequences. But, uh, the less said about those, the better, I suppose.

Essentially, “Keio Flying Squadron” is your standard side scrolling shoot ‘em up, only instead of piloting your tried-and-true space ship, you’re actually a semi-naked rabbit woman piloting a Plucky Duck look-a-like that can launch fireballs out its armpits. And instead of merely blasting away at your generic aeronautic foes, this one has you duking it out with absolutely MASSIVE, exquisitely detailed and animated foes -- among them, a gigantic wooden tank, a squirrel carrying a giant acorn with an elephant demon inside it (with a dude wearing a fish suit riding atop its head) and a gargantuan flying contraption made out of dozens of tanks with an American flag on it. Oh shit, did things just get all sorts of political up in here all of a sudden?

Clearly, “Keio” is a beautiful looking game, with rich animation and downright gorgeous sprites. The levels look crisp and vibrant, and the character design is utterly astounding (just wait until you get to the boss fight with the giant kitten headed automaton!) The problem is that it’s just too short a game (probably less than an hour in length for most players) and, at times, the boss fights do tend to drag on longer than they should. If this game were a little longer -- and a little bit more diverse -- it surely would’ve ranked even higher on this countdown. Even so, it’s a really fun SHMUP, and one of the console’s many, MANY unheralded gems.

Wolfchild CD

“Wolfchild,” an Amiga original that was eventually ported over to the much, much more popular 16-bit consoles, was a game that was overlooked by most Genesis and Super Nintendo owners. In hindsight, while it wasn’t necessarily the best action game of the time frame, there’s no denying that “Wolfchild,” as a whole, was really enjoyable. If you ever wondered what would happen if you put  “Altered Beast,” “Mega Man X” and “Contra III” in a blender and hit puree…well, Wolfchild isn’t the best possible result of turning the switch, but it ain’t too shabby a mixture, regardless.

Following your requisite horribly animated opening cut scene, the game plops you down straight into the middle of the action, with your lion-haired avatar shooting his way through a futuristic enemy airbase. From there, you’ll be jumping and shooting your way through all the standard locales, including jungles occupied by Predator-esque, uh, predators and the obligatory underground laboratory (patrolled by giant wasps, of course.) Clearly, “Wolfchild” borrows heavily from a lot of series, including “Contra,” “Metroid,” “Mega Man” and even a little bit of “Sonic,” and when I say the game apes “Altered Beast” HARD, I mean it: not only does the game utilize a same “grab the orb to power-up” gimmick that the infamous Genesis pack-in utilized, I am almost 100 percent certain that the developers of this game used the exact same howling sound effect that Sega utilized!

There are a lot of negatives working against the game, however; the graphics are really underwhelming, the sound is a little warbled and it’s pretty short (I managed to blow through the game, on my first play through, in less than an hour.) That said, it’s fun while it lasts, and it’s simplistic, unrefined mechanics make it a game anyone can easily hop into and enjoy. An all-time classic the game may not be, but for a boring afternoon, you could do worlds worse than “Wolfchild CD.”

Wonder Dog 

Developed by Core Design, “Wonder Dog” was one of the very first games to be released on the Sega CD. In many ways a standard platformer, the game stood out due to its crisp graphics (with super detailed sprites and fluid animations that were years ahead of what the Genesis and SNES was capable of doing) and its unique combination of speedy and exploration-based game play. Think of it as a combination of “Sonic the Hedgehog” and “Kid Chameleon”…just not as good as either, of course.

One of the things I really dug about the game was its backgrounds. While most platformers of the time frame relied on the usual dull and drab color schemes, the landscapes in “Wonder Dog” were actually quite varied, and some even utilized some neat scaling effects that really wouldn’t become the norm in 2D platformers until the emergence of the PS1 and Saturn.

Clearly, the game suffers from repetitive level structures (the backgrounds, as diverse as they are, don’t hide the fact that the actual stage infrastructure is basically the same throughout), and the formulaic boss fights -- which entail your character going toe to toe with huge sprites, including a Sasquatch-like monster and a Goliath-sized Elmer Fudd knockoff -- get pretty irritating after awhile. Even so, the game as a whole is quite enjoyable, and as the stages progress, the title takes on more of a puzzler-esque vibe, with levels that are a whole lot more varied and complex. “Super Mario World,” it ain’t, but if you’re looking for a straight-forward platformer with vibrant visuals and solid gameplay, “Wonder Dog” is one of the more fine-tuned options to be found on the console.

It's still our hearts.


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