The Video Game Critic's
Spring Special

Updated 4/15/2023
Spring is a great time of year. The ground thaws out, the days are longer, and people once again begin venturing out to enjoy the outdoors.

So what makes a good Spring video game? Well there's Easter, with all the flowers, candy, eggs, and pastel colors that come with it. Several sports are associated with Spring including baseball, golf, and horse-racing. Finally, the bugs start coming out, and it's time to get your hands dirty in the garden.

I've tried to capture as many of these elements as I could in the following review compilation. Not all of these games are great, but they are seasonally-correct when played in the March/April/May timeframe. Enjoy.

Bee 52

Codemasters 1992

System: NES
Grade: B+
Bee 52 cart The guy who said this game would be perfect for my Spring Review Special was spot on. Bee 52 is the embodiment of the season with its flowers, insects, and inviting backyard scenery. I even like its happy music, some of which reminded me of Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse (Genesis, 1990).

The boxy cartridge looks different than your garden-variety NES game. It's shiny gold in color with a mysterious switch on the back. A sticker basically states "if setting A doesn't work, try B". Apparently this was necessary because the game was unlicensed by Nintendo. I don't know why that was the case, because Bee 52 is as innovative and wholesome as they come.

For each stage your goal is to travel across the yard, gather nectar from flowers, and transport it back to your hive. Along the way you'll contend with spiders, fluttering butterflies, inching caterpillars, and honey-stealing ants.

It would be too simplistic to describe Bee 52 as a side-scrolling shooter; it's much more than that. You move your fuzzy, chubby bee at your own methodical pace, meandering around flower stems while carefully moving into position. I love how your bee squeezes into a flower with its butt wiggling about.

Momentum plays a big role so you need to take your time. It's easy to bounce off things, propelling you into danger. Sprinkler devices are super annoying; a single drop of water can knock you clear across the screen. And never fly along the top edge of the screen, as it makes you vulnerable to spiders that tend to drop in unexpectedly.

If you find yourself caught on a spider-web strand, don't fret. You can use your stinger to kill the spider hanging below you. I can't express just how gratifying it feels to use that stinger! Shooting is fun too. Special flying bugs dispense power-ups that let you fire rapidly or shoot three ways.

The games offers two paths to take - the front or back yard. Each stage is alive with activity, and they vary with regard to layout and time of day. Bee 52 is challenging to play for score and there's a nice high score screen. I am smitten with this game. I can't recall anything else quite like it.


Sega 1995

System: Genesis
Grade: B+
screenshot This obscure platformer harkens back to the days of happy-go-lucky platformers like Super Mario World (SNES, 1991) and Sonic the Hedgehog (Genesis, 1991). Ristar is a star-shaped hero with stretchy arms used to climb, grab enemies, and swing around poles. If you can stomach the cuteness factor this game is a heck of lot of fun. The stages are set on various planets, each with their own unique ecosystems (flowers, water, fire, snow, etc).

Ristar arrived late in the Genesis life cycle, and it's clear that the developers knew exactly what they were doing. The colors are so brilliant that you'd think this was a 32X title. The degree of detail is exceptional, making effective use of textures, shadows, and scaling. The upbeat soundtrack is appealing, although not as catchy as the Sonic games. Ristar's mechanics take some getting used to.

Instead of pouncing on creatures you grab them and head-butt them off the screen, which is satisfying. Enemies include fish, lizards, bunnies, and annoying dive-bombing birds. There's not much precision with "aiming" your arms but at least the collision detection is forgiving. Once you get used to the arm-swinging mechanics, you'll be navigating the levels with ease. There are alternate paths, secret areas, and not-so-hidden treasure chests that net you life and bonus points.

Ristar is brimming with originality but the game does get confusing at times. You tend to get bounced around a lot, and it's hard to tell when you're giving or taking damage. Heck, just opening a chest makes it look like you got punched in the face! Still, Ristar is engaging and refreshingly easy. The bosses don't overstay their welcome and I especially enjoyed fighting the big hammerhead shark. Ristar may look like a standard platformer but it's like nothing you've ever played. Trust me - it's good.


US Games 1982

System: Atari 2600
Grade: C+
screenshot Easily dismissed as shovelware from the game-crash era, Gopher is actually somewhat original. You play the role of a farmer obsessed with protecting three measly carrots from a rampaging gopher. Hasn't this guy ever heard of a grocery store? It's impressive how the farmer is rendered in five colors, but did he need to be so creepy looking? The guy looks like a cross between John Malkovich and Freddy Kreuger for crying out loud!

Each round begins with the gopher frantically tunneling through the ground under your feet, breaking the surface every now and then. Let me tell you something about this gopher. He is one schizophrenic bastard. You never know when he's going to make a mad dash for a carrot. Often he'll stick out his head just to taunt you! He was clearly modeled after the mischievous gopher in Caddyshack - a film released three years prior to this game.

Bonking him in the head will net you 100 points but he's quick so your timing needs to be spot on. Filling his holes also adds to your score, but sometimes I think it's a good strategy to leave a hole open to bait him. Occasionally a duck will fly overhead and drop a tiny seed only one pixel in size. If you catch it, you can "plant" it in the place of a missing carrot, causing it to instantly "grow" back!

The game opens and closes with some ear-splitting music but otherwise Gopher is alright. It requires some multitasking and that pesky gopher will keep you guessing every step of the way. Sudz said he's never played anything quite like this, so that's got to be worth something, right?


Bandai 2008

System: Wii
Grade: B+
screenshot This game is the embodiment of Spring with its lush green grass, flowery paths, cascading streams, and breezy music. Klonoa's simple platform gameplay and cheerful graphics harken back to the 16-bit era. While playing this game I experienced flashbacks of Sonic the Hedgehog (Genesis, 1991), Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse (Genesis, 1990), Donkey Kong Country (SNES, 1994), and Pandemonium! (PS1, 1996).

The Dreamcast-quality visuals are smooth and the water looks inviting. You guide our furry hero through windmills, tree houses, caves, castles, and forests. Some areas let you ride on mine carts or careen down waterslides. Klonoa's imaginative stages are rendered in 3D but played in 2D, delivering the best of both worlds. The pathways tend to intertwine, often giving you a glimpse of areas to come.

The simple control scheme is limited to grabbing and jumping - no motion controls to contend with. Jumping is a bit touchy, but your ability to hover momentarily allows for some margin for error. What makes Klonoa unique is how you manipulate chubby, bouncy enemies to perform basic actions. Whether you're vaulting off of one to perform a double-jump, or throwing one to clear an obstacle, you'll find a number of creative uses for these guys.

Conquering each stage isn't particularly hard, but collecting the elusive puzzle pieces gives the game some replay value. Frequent checkpoints appear in the form of alarm clocks and you can save your progress between stages. Klonoa's second-grade dialogue can get a little tedious, but you can hit the minus button to skip it. This is a relatively easy adventure, but even seasoned gamers will appreciate Klonoa's old-school gameplay and innocent charm.

Spina the Bee

IntelligentVision 2012

System: Intellivision
Grade: C-
screenshot Here's yet another lost Intellivision title that is only now seeing the light of day. Spina the Bee (originally entitled "Zzzz!") exudes the spirit of Spring with colorful flowers and pollination themes. I don't think I've ever seen a game like this before. You control a nicely animated bee on a side-scrolling screen of large flowers. Hey - that looks like a real bee!

The screen scrolls slowly but constantly, and you need to keep up. By hovering over a flower you extract pollen, causing it to change color. Carefully navigate so you don't touch the green leaves or stems, as they will cost you points. Spina's detailed graphics feature many varieties of flowers including dangerous Venus Flytraps.

Advanced levels add dragonflies, spiders, and raindrops into the mix. I like the way raindrops splash on the flowers. The game's background "music" features buzzing sounds played at different octaves, and the theme song sounds like it's being sung by a chorus of bees. You can't knock the audio and video, but the control is another story.

Your bee is pretty agile at the start of each level, but quickly becomes weighed down with pollen. It starts to become a chore just to keep your bee aloft, and applying constant pressure to the controller will kill your thumb! Between stages you're presented with a nice honeycomb screen showing your score breakdown as well as the high score. Spina the Bee comes up short in the fun department, but it's still a good-looking and interesting addition to any collection.

Viva Pinata

Microsoft 2006

System: Xbox 360
Grade: C
screenshot Viva Pinata is Microsoft's effort to reach the younger demographic, and it's not bad. Modeled somewhat after the Sim City games, the idea is to cultivate a small plot of land in order to attract a diverse assortment of cute creatures. These creatures are pinata versions of real animals, with names like Syrupent (snake), Sparrowmint (bird), Bunnycomb (rabbit), Mousemallow (mouse), and Squizzel (squirrel).

You explore your "garden" with a circular cursor, and there's always something to do. You'll clear away rocks and debris, purchase items, grow plants, construct habitats, and interact with the creatures. Once you've fulfilled the "romance" requirements of a certain species, they will begin to procreate. The imaginative pinata animations are crafted with care, and it's slightly heartbreaking when they die of sickness or are hunted down. Your garden tends to get a little cluttered over time, but new ground gradually becomes accessible. I really like the changing weather conditions, and it's neat how the time of day affects animal behavior. The worms and birds tend to get up early, and foxes and bats are active at night.

Viva Pinata's flower-shaped menus are structured logically enough, but the interface could be better. There are too many layers of menus, and too many prompts. Also, I couldn't determine the practical value of actions like "mailing" pinatas or assigning names to them. Helpful characters wearing Indian Doctor masks are gradually introduced to sell you goods, heal sick pinatas, or perform other services. These increase your options exponentially, but after a while it feels like the game is being crushed under its own weight.

Viva Pinata is rarely exciting, but it's constantly introducing new creatures and items. As long as you keep experimenting, you'll always see something new, and the possibilities are endless. But while I found the game engaging from the start, my interest waned over time. Despite my continued success, maintaining the garden has a lot of repetitive tasks that can feel like chores over time. I really wish I didn't have to direct pinatas towards their mates or food sources, and the maze-like minigames are tiresome. I can appreciate the style of the game and its ageless appeal, but Viva Pinata doesn't have that addictive quality needed to put a game like this over the top.


Sega 1996

System: Sega 32X
Grade: D+
screenshot For a game that promised to be so unique and original, Kolibri is awfully tame. It's a hummingbird shooter for Pete's sake! Employing the innocent "Ecco the Dolphin" formula, Kolibri offers beautiful scenery and relaxing music but little else. The colorful layered backdrops resemble oil paintings, and the melodic soundtrack is heavy on the harps and flutes. Kolibri makes good use of the 32X color palette, but otherwise this might as well have been a Genesis title.

In most stages your hummingbird can fly in all directions while eradicating harmful insects or collecting rings. Your objective is never explicitly stated however, so you'll need to figure it out for yourself. Likewise, there are no numbers or indicators of any kind on the screen. Perhaps Sega didn't want to obscure their lovely artwork, but it would be nice to have a score, or at least know how much health you have!

Most enemies are small insects like bees, although you'll also encounter some amazing yellow-striped snakes. That toad might look friendly enough, but if you get too close he'll swallow you in an instant! Over the course of the game your bird will venture through forests, caves, and an ancient temple. If the game's scale is consistent, wouldn't this "ancient temple" be the size of a shoe box?? Sega, you are so busted!

The simple early stages are moderately enjoyable, but later you'll need to perform tedious tasks like moving objects and flying against the wind (joy!). Kolibri is armed with a wide selection of weapons including burning rings, heat-seeking lasers, and pea-shots that explode into fireworks. But while these weapons may look great, they are seriously weak considering every foe can sustain numerous hits. In fact, some creatures appear completely unfazed. Floating bubbles house weapons and health, but their tiny icons are hard to discern.

Each stage is introduced with a password, and the odd stage titles include "Deep Seeding", "Dark Cavity", "Penetration", "Eruption", and last but not least - "New Infection". Yeah, these programmers were some really lonely guys! Kolibri is only mildly fun with one player, and the two-player co-op is completely worthless. My friends hated this game, even calling it a "piece of [expletive]". Maybe so, but there aren't many original games like Kolibri for the 32X, and if you have a soft spot for the Ecco series, your reaction might be a little less visceral.

Dig Dug

Atari 1987

System: Atari 7800
Grade: B
screenshot This is a great version of one of the more timeless arcade classics. The star of Dug Dug is a little astronaut-looking guy with an air pump. As he tunnels under the ground, he can defeat his adversaries (including fire-breathing dragons) by pumping them until they pop, or score the big points by dropping boulders on their heads. The biggest thrill is to time your boulder drops to take out multiple baddies at a time. And don't underestimate the value of those bonus vegetables in the center of the screen. Never has eggplant been pursued with such zeal!

As is the case with so many well-designed video games, the risk versus reward ratio is perfectly balanced. The characters in this Atari 7800 edition look similar to the arcade (maybe slightly chunkier), and the memorable "banjo" music is perfectly reproduced. The vibrant colors stand in stark contrast from the washed-out look of so many other 7800 games. It's a shame the game doesn't take advantage of all the screen's real estate, instead being "cropped" on both sides. This makes the playing field feel slightly cramped, leaving the player with little room for error.

The game offers a generous number of lives (five to begin), but the difficulty level is high. The pace of the game is faster than the arcade, with creatures that are very aggressive from the start. Your score is not displayed when your game ends, so be sure to catch a glimpse before the screen goes black. Dig Dug on the Atari 7800 can't quite measure up to the arcade, but it's still a heck of a lot of fun.


Atari 1980

System: Atari 2600
Grade: B
screenshot Atari Golf boils the sport down to its bare essentials. There's just a single, nine-hole course. The tree, sandtrap, and water hazards are always in the same locations. All cups are in the dead center of their respective greens. In spite of its simplicity and perhaps because of it, I love this game.

Golf's blocky graphics are basic but more than good enough to get the point across. This is one of those what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of games. The simple hole designs don't try to bait you into taking risky shots. There's no set-up before each shot; you just line up with the ball and whack away!

Granted, the "windmill" swing mechanic may be less-than-intuitive for those who haven't been playing this game for the last 40 years. A novice might have a hard time determining which direction the ball will travel, but taking practice swings helps. The longer you hold down the button, the farther your shot. Upon landing on the green you're presented with a closeup putting screen. It is possible however, to sink the ball from the fairway.

The B difficulty is usually the easier setting in most Atari games, but in this case it's harder. On B, when the ball hits the course boundary it will stop dead! At least on A the ball will keep going, allowing you to cut corners and sail over water hazards. Just try not to lose your ball in that blue, out-of-bounds morass.

Golf is ideal if you're in a hurry, as you can complete a round well in under ten minutes. I'm kind of bummed that no homebrew enthusiast has "reimagined" this game with more holes, richer scenery, and perhaps some randomized elements like wind. Just don't mess around with that simple wind-up swing please. That thing is gold!

Yoshi's Island: Super Mario World 2

Nintendo 1995

System: Super Nintendo
Grade: A
screenshot I was expecting more of the same ol' Super Mario action from this one, but Yoshi's Island feels very unique. Apparently gamers really enjoyed riding on Yoshi's back in the previous Super Mario game, because that's all you do in this one! This time however Yoshi carries a baby in search of its twin.

The first thing you'll notice about Yoshi's Island is its innovative graphic style. The simple clean lines and solid colors of the first Super Mario World give way to visuals that appear to have been rendered with crayons and magic markers! It looks strange at first, but it ultimately gives the game its distinctive personality.

Many enemies resemble kids in Halloween masks, although you'll also encounter the familiar Super Mario mainstays. Yoshi's Island introduces some cool new moves, including the ability to "manufacture" and throw eggs at targets, and stomp the ground to break through weak areas. Special power-ups give Yoshi the ability to morph into a vehicle including a helicopter, train, tank, or sub.

Yoshi's Island has a huge number of levels, not to mention bonus challenges and mini-games. Up to three people can save progress to one cartridge. I was apprehensive about Yoshi's Island at first, but it won me over in a big way. It may look like a kiddie game, but there's no age limit to fun.

Bases Loaded

Jaleco 1988

System: NES
Grade: B-
screenshot In addition to being a terrific baseball game, Bases Loaded reinvigorated my interest in consoles in the late 1980's when I was more interested in home computers. I had stopped by my friend Tuan's house, and when I walked into his bedroom he was playing this game against my friend Bobby. Bases Loaded may have lacked the sharp graphics and sophisticated controls of a computer game, but I was captivated by its clean visuals, smooth animation, and intuitive gameplay.

Innovative for its time, Bases Loaded helped popularize the realistic "behind the pitcher" camera angle, and its fast-paced gameplay has held up well over the years. You can pitch and swing with precision, but fielding is tricky because there's no diving and the fielders move like snails. The game is loaded with memorable moments, and its quirks actually make it more endearing. When pitching a ball way outside, it's hilarious to see the catcher's disembodied mitt float away from the catcher's body.

Upon striking out, batters walk back to the dugout dejected with the bat on their shoulders. Pitchers can't seem to resist intercepting balls thrown from third base to first. Relief pitchers drive themselves to the mound, leaving me to wonder who is returning that little cart? And just look how wide that mound is! But the ultimate highlight of Bases Loaded is how you can initiate a brawl by hitting a batter in the face! That feature should be standard in all baseball games.

Bases Loaded's background music plays non-stop, which would be irritating if it wasn't so freakin' good! Fielders sound like they're squealing as they throw the ball, but the clear synthesized umpire voices sound great. Bases Loaded lacks a major league license, which may explain why my favorite player is "Paste" from the New Jersey team. With so many overly-complex baseball games on the market today, it sure feels good to get "back to the basics" with a classic like this.

Easter Bunny's Big Day

Mastiff 2003

System: Playstation
Grade: D
screenshot There aren't many Easter games out there, so naturally I had to review this. I tend to gravitate towards unusual, one-off titles no matter how awful they may be. Technically, Easter Bunny's Big Day is not terrible, but its complete lack of imagination is disappointing.

For the title screen I was expecting some classic Easter music to get me in the spirit, not some happy-go-lucky banjo diddy. Was the Peter Cottontail song not available? Surely Easter Parade has to be in public domain by now! Oh well, the game's music is pleasant enough and the game sports a lot of bright spring colors.

The premise is a bit odd. The idea that the Easter Bunny needs to find more eggs for his "big day" is believable enough, but was it necessary for him to enlist some egg-shaped robo-rabbit to do all the work? I guess that round thing was easier to animate than a lanky white bunny.

In "big adventure" mode you move between buildings of a town, each of which offers a set of mini-games. There's an egg-catching "action" game a la Kaboom! (Atari 2600, 1982), but with only one or two flying through the air at a time, it's not very egg-citing. I had a better time with the memory games, which play like a glorified Memory Match (Fairchild Channel F, 1978).

But the crux of Easter Bunny's Big Day is... wait for it... jigsaw puzzles. Don't get me wrong - I don't mind doing these on occasion, and the user interface for putting them together is great. It's easy to select the pieces and I love how they "click" into place. In the expert mode, a puzzle may contain up to 64 rotatable pieces. I prefer the easier puzzles, most of which reveal an artistic scene like an egg sitting in front of a city skyline. Some scenes are even animated.

Once jigsaw fatigue begins setting in however the game really doesn't have much else to offer. You'd think they could have whipped up a few simple, original mini-games to break the monotony. Easter Bunny's Big Day was obviously geared toward youngsters, who may find the idea of collecting all of the eggs rewarding. If you're a jigsaw puzzle fan (everybody needs a hobby) you might enjoy this. Otherwise you're better off investing your money in Peeps and Cadbury Eggs.

Hot Shots Golf 3

Sony 2002

System: Playstation 2
Grade: A-
screenshot The Hot Shots Golf series hasn't changed much since the first two editions (on Playstation One), but that's a good thing. With its lighthearted theme, simple controls, and beautiful rolling courses, Hot Shots has always been a joy to play. The graphics are much more impressive on the PS2. The six courses are splashed with color, the backgrounds are photo-realistic, and there are some truly innovative camera angles.

The fifteen "off-the-wall" golfers are less impressive. They tend to be bizarre caricatures, and many are very unappealing. Sure I love the blonde in the tight red dress, but I could have done without the nerds, hillbillies, and other assorted freaks. Need more proof the characters are weird? Marilyn Manson is a hidden character.

Even so, Hots Shots 3 delivers in terms of pure gameplay. You'll be playing this game all day long just to unlock golfers, courses, and other goodies. Each round moves along swiftly and smoothly, with very few lulls in the action. There are only a few minor annoyances worth mentioning. Some of the sound effects, especially people yelling, get on your nerves after a while. The new addition of "caddies" is worthless, and the character reactions tend to repeat a lot. Hot Shots hasn't evolved much over the years, but it's still the best golf game around.

Secret of Mana

Square Soft 1993

System: Super Nintendo
Grade: B+
screenshot My earliest recollection of this game came was from a 1993 two-page magazine ad. Since then Secret of Mana has become quite famous. Its graphics are rendered in bright, crayon-like colors that put me in the mind of spring. The gameplay is more Zelda-esque than I was expecting as you hack away at animals in a forest and visit quaint villages to stock up on items and save your progress.

The user interface employs an ingenious circular-menu system that lets you quickly peruse items, weapons, and spells. Considering how often you need to access your inventory, being able to press Y instead of start/select is a real thumb saver. Your party consists of three characters: a boy (warrior), a girl (princess), and some kind of elf (magic). There are no default names; you need to make up your own. What is the point?

You only control one character at a time but can configure the others to be more or less aggressive. It's not immediately obvious who you're controlling at a given time, but if you look close you'll see a tiny "1" next to your active character's face on the bottom. That seems odd until you realize up to three people can play at once. The two other characters usually follow closely, but on occasion it does feel like herding cats (or herding ghosts, if they're dead).

The fighting system is innovative. You can attack freely but you'll inflict far more damage if you wait for your attack meter to charge. You'll battle goblins, chess pieces, mind-altering owls, scorpions, and ducks wearing army helmets. I often found myself taking advantage of the fact that they tend to get caught up on the edge of the scenery. Defeated foes often drop treasure chests but many are rigged with boobie traps, which is bogus.

Secret of Mana's difficulty is uneven. It begins very hard, necessitating a mini walk-through in the instruction booklet. An encounter with a pair of werewolves really epitomized my frustrations. You tend to get sucked into them when hit, subjecting yourself to subsequent attacks. And they can heal themselves not once but several times over! There's a tiger boss that will knock you unconscious without even touching you.

Things get good once you obtain magical abilities. Your options really open up as you learn to juggle multiple spells for strategic advantage. There's no in-game map for the first half of the story, but once you acquire the services of a white dragon you can fly freely around an entire world via slick mode 7 graphics.

Secret of Mana's soundtrack is superb for the most part, although one particular tune (Dwarf Village) had me reaching for the mute. The difficulty ramps back up towards the end, subjecting your characters to one-hit deaths. Still, I fell under the charm of Secret of Mana. I obsessed over this game for two months and now I'm curious about the new reissued versions.


Nintendo 2001

System: GameCube
Grade: B+
screenshot People who complain about the lack of originality of video games owe it to themselves to give Pikmin a try. Best described as a cross between Lemmings and Warcraft, Pikmin is brimming with all of the originality and charm you'd expect from a Nintendo original. Fun and addictive, it combines the simple controls of a console game with real-time strategy elements usually found on a PC.

You control a little spaceman who's crashed into a planet and is attempting to locate 30 parts of his ship. By enlisting the help of small leaf-shaped creatures called Pikmin, you gradually retrieve the pieces and reconstruct your ship. The crux of the game involves raising groups of Pikmin and using them to retrieve objects. These little guys are cute and endearing, and their special abilities are indicated by their color. You can make the Pikmin perform several tasks in parallel, and they can even defeat monsters when unleashed in large numbers.

The game showcases the Gamecube's power by letting you command up to 100 of these creatures at a time. Pikmin strikes a nice balance of action and puzzle-solving. The camera is sometimes an issue, but it doesn't dampen the fun. Once you get drawn into its little virtual world, you actually start empathizing for the little Pikmin. I truly felt guilty whenever I left a few behind at the end of a day, knowing they would be eaten by nocturnal carnivores. This game will appeal to both men and women of all ages. Although its gameplay wears thin over time, Pikmin will fascinate for hours on end.

Realsports Baseball

Atari 1983

System: Atari 5200
Grade: A+
screenshot This is, without a doubt, my favorite classic baseball game. It may not have all the features of Intellivision's World Championship baseball, but it beats that game hands-down with superior graphics, awesome control, and impressive voice synthesis. Realsports Baseball gives you uniformed players, a sharp-looking diamond, and a stadium complete with a homerun fence -- and a crowd. There's even a scoreboard that displays the complete line score.

The pitching controls are outstanding! You can choose between nine pitches, and even control the ball in flight. Thanks to the helpful shadow, each pitch is visually distinctive. The batting controls are also innovative, taking full advantage of the unique Atari 5200 joystick design. You swing by sliding the joystick left to right, and can even control the height of your cut. Fielding takes a while to get used to, but the computer is surprisingly adept at choosing the appropriate fielder.

The whole baseball experience is captured in this game, complete with tagging up, hit and runs, squeeze plays, no wind-up pitches, base stealing, and throwing errors! Thanks to some nifty voice synthesis, an umpire calls strikes, balls, and outs. The menu screen allows you to fully configure the number of players, difficulty, and number of innings. No game is perfect, and waiting for the teams to leave the field between innings gets old after a while. But when it comes to classic baseball, Atari 5200 Realsports is second to none!

Stakes Winner

Saurus 1996

System: Neo Geo
Grade: C+
screenshot I may not be a big horse racing fan, but I consider the triple crown to be one of the welcome signs of Spring. Most horse racing games tend to be overly complex or gambling-oriented, so Stakes Winner's simple arcade format is refreshing. The horses are cartoonish but the tracks are green and lush. You view the action from a raised side angle as if you were sitting in the grandstand. Conditions are usually bright and sunny, but sometimes they can be overcast or rainy.

The controls are somewhat mysterious. You tap A to gallop at a steady pace and hit B to use your whip and pick up the pace. You can tap the stick forward twice to bump a horse ahead of you out of the way. It's possible to tap backwards to slow down, but I have no idea why anyone would want to do that. The races are pretty chaotic as the horses tend to crowd each other, and frankly it's hard to tell if your button tapping is having any impact at all. A close-up of your horses' face indicates his energy level, and apparently much of the strategy lies in pacing your horse correctly.

The collision detection is a little fishy around the rail, so be careful not to get caught up on it. Your best shot at victory is to grab that cheap speed boost icon (wings) that often appears in the final stretch. Placing in the top three advances you to the next race, and each contest is unique in terms of track length and shape. Triumphant music and colorful victory screens do a great job of conveying the pomp and circumstance of the sport. Stakes Winner is a real conundrum of a game. I could never fully grasp the controls or strategy, yet I never get tired of trying to figure it out.


Ubi Soft 1995

System: Jaguar
Grade: B+
screenshot It's hard to find fault with this excellent 2D platformer. Rayman is a cartoon character whose hands and feet are not connected by arms or legs (they just float). It sounds odd, but it gives him a unique look and allows for some interesting animations. The game combines the slow, deliberate gameplay of Super Mario Brothers with the lush colorful graphics of a Sonic the Hedgehog game. The animations are incredibly smooth and often humorous.

Rayman starts off like a simple platform jumper, but as he gains new abilities like punch, hanging from ledges, or flying like a helicopter, the challenges become more complex and intense. Rayman has its share of innovations too. Your shooting fist works like a boomerang. You can instantly grow huge flowers to help you reach high ledges. Huge pieces of fruit grow on trees, and you can use them to clear your path or float across water. Besides collecting items, you'll free caged creatures and face huge bosses. The collision detection is very forgiving, but sometimes you can't see the ledge you need to jump to.

The lush stages are works of art, bursting with color and teeming with life. Likewise, the music is upbeat and fun. Like Super Mario Brothers, there's a map screen that allows you to choose your stage and revisit old ones, and you can save your place between stages. The stage designs can be frustrating, but I found this version easier than the Saturn edition. Fun and highly replayable, Rayman is easily one of the better Jaguar titles.

Computer Golf

Magnavox 1979

System: Odyssey 2
Grade: B-
screenshot It's difficult for me to imagine why I was initially so hard on Computer Golf considering it plays almost exactly like Golf (Atari 2600, 1980). Its 9-hole, par 36 course nicely captures the leisurely spirit of the sport.

You control a blocky golfer who looks exactly like Lee Trevino. Each hole has a unique design but the only hazards are evergreen trees. Hit a tree and watch Lee Trevino shake his club in disgust. Man, this guy has some serious anger management issues!

The course boundaries are kind of like the sand traps, since the ball has a tendency to get stuck in them. Once positioned for a shot, you hold in the button to "wind up" which determines how far the ball will travel.

Make it to the green and you get a close-up for your putt. Fortunately the cup is pretty big and hard to miss. I've never been able to sink the ball on an approach shot, but I suspect it's possible.

Up to four players can participate in a round. If there's a fault with Computer Golf, it's the fact that there's just only one course with the same configuration each time. That said, I had a good time trying to chip away at my best score.

Fantasy Zone

Sega 1986

System: Sega Master System
Grade: B+
screenshot In stark contrast to the serious side-scrolling shooters of the mid-1980's, Fantasy Zone strikes a whimsical chord with cute aliens, playful music, and ultra-bright pastel colors. Some gamers may be irritated by the fanciful style but Fantasy Zone's gameplay is no joke. Your small, bullet-shaped ship is very nimble, and I like how it sprouts little feet when running along the planet surface. You can fire shots as fast as you can tap the fire button, and the second button lets you drop bombs.

Each side-scrolling stage contains several large, stationary aliens that must be defeated in order to initiate a boss encounter. Zany enemies come in all forms, from green fish to blue blobs to rotating flowers. Honestly, I can't even tell what most of those things are supposed to be. When defeated, baddies drop bouncing coins which can be snatched up and used to purchase weapons, bombs, and speed upgrades. You'll certainly want to upgrade your firepower, since larger foes can absorb a lot of hits. I love the seven-way shot weapon, but the smart bomb isn't quite as devastating as I would like (it won't destroy larger foes). Avoid the speed upgrades because they make your ship very hard to guide with precision.

The difficulty is up there, and the collision detection won't cut you any slack. Sometimes you'll think you're in the clear, only to have a wayward rotating missile clip your wing and send you to day-glow heaven. Fantasy Zone's graphic quality is pretty amazing, with a screen resolution that seems higher than most Master System games. The colors are remarkably vibrant and the scenery looks crisp and well defined. When destroyed, your ship bursts into a nice pattern of snowflakes. I appreciate Fantasy Zone's novel approach, and shooter fans should welcome the change of pace.

Horse Racing

Mattel 1979

System: Intellivision
Grade: B
screenshot Not only is this a fun game, but it can teach you a thing or two about gambling. One to six players begin with $750 each and bid on a series of four-horse races. Prior to each race, you view the recent history of each horse before placing your wager. There are two types of bets: Win and Exacta. Once the race begins, you are not just a spectator. No, you'll actually get one chance to strategically "coax" and "whip" your horse. While these actions don't make a dramatic difference, they could be critical in a close race.

Horse Racing is a well-designed game, and the screens are chock-full of information and stats. The racetrack graphics are good, although the horses are small. The instruction manual steps you through the game and provides useful background information. If there's one problem with this game, it's the fact that there's minimal action, and the races usually aren't very close. Still, this offers as much as you could expect from a horse racing title.

Rabbit Transit

StarPath 1984

System: Atari 2600
Grade: C
screenshot This game was an obvious candidate for my Spring Review Special with its frolicking bunnies, flower-filled meadows, and white picket fences. Your rabbit is so fluidly-animated I suspected motion-captured technology was employed. Then I remembered this was just a low-budget video game. Get a grip Dave!

It's interesting to note that Rabbit Transit was sold on cassette tape as part of the Starpath Supercharger line. You'd hook a tape player to a special Starpath cartridge, hit play, and the game would load. For the sake of full disclosure, I happen to be reviewing this off a ROM on my Harmony Cart.

Rabbit Transit's gameplay alternates between two screens. The first plays like a diagonal Frogger (Parker Bros., 1982) as you hop across a meadow while avoiding snakes, bouncing eggs, and flies. I can't believe touching a fly will cost you a life! A fly! The dangers are sparse however so this screen is not hard. Since your rabbit only jumps diagonally, you may want to angle your joystick.

The second screen is a rip-off of Q*Bert (Parker Bros., 1982). There's a pattern of "ledges" you hop diagonally between in order to turn them all from green to yellow. This would be pretty easy if not for the guy moving along the top of the screen dropping pies on you. The difficulty goes through the roof when the pies start reverting ledges to their original colors.

Completing this round causes the pie-dropping guy to shout "!?!" Pretty strong language for an Atari game! You're then treated to a "victory" screen with our rabbit hero hopping across with a momma rabbit and several babies in tow. Each time you complete a set of levels, there are more bunnies. That's nice. There are also some crazy-looking stars in the sky. Northern lights perhaps?

For musical tunes the developers scraped the bottom of the public domain barrel, belting out screechy renditions of Pop Goes the Weasel, London Bridge is Falling Down, and For He's a Jolly Good Fellow. Audio notwithstanding Rabbit Transit is a fair game that looks really good. It borrows liberally from other games, but at least those games were good!

Blue's Journey

Alpha 1990

System: Neo Geo
Grade: D
screenshot For a Neo Geo title, Blue's Journey is decidedly weak. It tries to be a Mario Bros. clone, but it's not even in the same ballpark thanks to its confusing gameplay and counter-intuitive controls. As a small elf-like creature in a side-scrolling, pastel world, you must fend off cartoon monsters while leaping between platforms.

Armed with a huge green leaf, you can "smack down" birds, lizards, Vikings, and potato-looking thingamajigs. These stunned creatures can then be picked up and hurled at other adversaries. In addition, it's possible to jump on creatures and "spin" them off the screen. None of it makes much sense, and I found myself hopelessly confused. Enemies close in from all sides, and rock-dropping birds only add to the aggravation.

Blue's single innovation involves pressing the C button, which allows you to shrink down into a tiny version of your character. But besides allowing you to reach certain items (tucked away in logs for example), I really couldn't find a practical use for this. Blue's Journey does feature branching paths, and you can purchase items with "flowers" you collect. As the instructions elegantly state, "The flower is your money. Hung onto it."

Sadly, bad English is the most entertaining aspect of Blue's Journey. I love a good platform game, but this one feels awkward, and I couldn't get a feel for it. The graphics are colorful and the music is bouncy, but neither are particularly appealing. A two-player simultaneous mode is available, but that's just twice as mediocre. Suffice to say, this journey is not one I will be embarking on very often.


Atarisoft 1983

System: Colecovision
Grade: A-
screenshot This is a truly spectacular home version of Centipede. Take it from a guy who owns an original Centipede arcade machine! When used with Colecovision's Roller Controller (trak-ball) this game rivals the thrill of the arcade. You could make a case it's faster and more challenging.

The bugs and mushrooms are super-sized and the animation is smooth. The screen layout is much wider than the arcade, which sported a vertical configuration. This means you have more ground to cover but the centipede has less. That hairy spider is a frightening sight. I find it annoying how he tends to hug the bottom of the screen, preventing you from getting a good shot at him.

Scorpions that look like lobsters frequently cross the threshold, poisoning mushrooms in their wake. A sick centipede will quickly descend, but you can decimate it if you manage to camp out directly below it. Of course, if you're a little off-center you're probably going to lose a life.

When your score reaches about 20K the spider begins making wild, exaggerated movements. He'll bound from the top of the screen and into your lap before you can shout "Arachnophobia!" At this point the scorpions are crossing the screen almost constantly, and at 1000 points make for lucrative (but distracting) targets.

Centipede is gangbusters if you have the Colecovision Roller Controller, but frankly a standard controller works nearly as well. The ball just provides a little more arcade flair. I find it strange how Atari seemed to make the best versions of its games for its competitor systems. This may be the best home edition.

Photo by Atakan Narman on Unsplash

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