The Sega Mascot History Tour

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

People have given a lot of stick to AtGames’ recent Sega Mega Drive Flashback HD model. AtGames have produced emulation-driven handheld and TV-hookup consoles under licence from Sega for a while now, and the most recent Flashback which hooks up to your TV with an HDMI cable to allow for mild upscaling to 720p quality has come in for a barrage of criticism. AtGames claimed that the bad early reviewers were down to a bad production batch and the issues were corrected in the retail version; since the product is pretty cheap and cheerful I decided to give it a go and I’m actually inclined to believe them. I can spot small but important distinctions between the menu presentation on mine and in the reviews, for instance, which suggests that these got an urgent firmware update.

Yes, there’s a bunch of shovelware non-Mega Drive games on here which AtGames could have happily left off without complaints from everyone, and yes the main menu system is a bit off – but Sonic the Hedgehog feels like it plays like it always did for me, and the controller feels close enough to my recollections of the Mega Drive controller that I have no complaints there (though I didn’t have a Mega Drive myself – ours was a SNES house, I only occasionally got to play with friends’ Sega consoles). I hadn’t noticed either the wireless controller lag or the emulation issues others have flagged, and I suspect part of the enduring animosity towards the product hails from the fact that emulation geeks can get incredibly fussy about stuff like dropped frames which no human being would actually notice by themselves unless you drew attention to them or analysed the output from the emulator.

In general, the box feels like it accomplishes what these retro consoles are supposed to accomplish – giving you the experience of playing a cross-section of classic games from the console in question, in something which feels like the original hardware without taking up a bunch of space with a stack of cartridges. (That said, a nice touch is the inclusion of a cartridge slot, which means that many – but not all – Mega Drive cartridges can work on the system.)

One of the nice things about Sega was that they were a bit friendlier about backwards compatibility – one of the first peripherals they put out for the Mega Drive (and perhaps one of the few which actually constituted a good idea) was an adapter that let you play Master System games on it, and because the Game Gear shared enough of its guts with the Master System that it could run its games, some Game Gear titles are included here too. That’s a really nice touch – in particular, it’s nice to have a collection with all four of the original Phantasy Star games in the first place. (Though Sega have put out numerous compilations of their games over the years, many irritatingly don’t include the full run of Phantasy Star I to IV.)

There’s some frankly odd gaps in the collection – why include Sonic & Knuckles without also including Sonic 3? Why leave out Alex Kidd In Shinobi World when it was considered to be one of the better Alex Kidd games? Still, there’s enough here that you can actually use the flashback to explore a fascinating cross-section of Sega’s history – and in particular, their multiple attempts at producing a corporate mascot who could compete with a certain rotund plumber who was drawing lots of dimes for Nintendo at the time.

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Professor Layton and the Balanced Hint System

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Let’s not mince words. There is an awful lot of shovelware on the Nintendo DS, and by far the majority of it is in the puzzle genre. Ranging from Brain Training rip-offs which wrap stale puzzles in a thin veneer of being good for you to Sudoku and crossword collections that don’t really offer many more puzzles than their paper equivalents, the DS catalogue is groaning with games which don’t really offer any functionality that you couldn’t get from a pencil and one of those puzzle books you can buy in the newsagents’. It’s easy to see why there’s so many of them – I can’t imagine your average Sudoku program takes much more than a week to program the interface and an afternoon to program a routine for generating the puzzles. And even if only a fraction of the DS audience is idiot enough to use a £100 handheld console to perform an activity you could do with a 10p pencil and the puzzles page of a free newspaper, it’s still worth doing if you’re likely to earn back more than the pitiful amount of money you invested in the thing in the first place.

This is why Professor Layton and the Curious Village is such a surprise. It’s a puzzle game where the actual puzzles could have been presented as a straight-up list at a fraction of the cost. However, developers Level 5 have refused to cut corners and instead invested time, money, care, and attention into the game, with the result that it rises above a simple puzzle collection.

Continue reading “Professor Layton and the Balanced Hint System”