Mischief Maker’s 2023 Top Ten Games

10. System Shock Remake

Fantastic visual design that recreates the crazy abstract wall textures of the original to create a space station that is at once distinct and creepy. The genre of immersive sims really lost their immersion value when System Shock 2 added RPG jank and Bioshock added a morality tracker linked to certain tools. System Shock Remake has none of that and is the most fun I’ve had since Thief 1, despite beating the original version decades ago.

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Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection

If “arcade games are too easy” was the problem, Capcom’s Ghosts ‘n Goblins was the solution. Ghosts ‘n Goblins made its arcade debut in 1985 and ports of the game found their way to multiple video game consoles and home computers the following year, eventually selling millions of copies. In the game, Sir Arthur must overcome never-ending hordes of zombies, demons, and dozens of other dark denizens of Demon World in an attempt to rescue Princess Prin-Prin from the demon Astaroth. Despite being one of the most difficult arcade games of all time, Ghosts ‘n Goblins launched one of Capcom’s most beloved franchises made up of some of the most difficult sequels of all time.

The latest game in the series is Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection, released for the Nintendo Switch in 2021 before making its way to Steam. The game resurrects popular levels from the first two games in the series (Ghosts ‘n Goblins and Ghouls ‘n Ghosts) and remixes them by adding even more treachery, something most players of the original series might find difficult to imagine.

In Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection, Sir Arthur must once again find his way through cruelly crafted levels while armies of adversaries swarm him from every direction. Most enemies respawn, so there’s no point in waiting for a break in the action to advance. Fans of the original series will recognize locations such as the first level’s graveyard, but each one has been restructured to add even more traps than before. While some new features have been added to the game, gameplay feels overwhelmingly familiar.

An endearing part of the original series was its pixel artwork. While the character and background artwork in Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection honors those games, the art has been updated with a “Flash-like” style. The backgrounds are highly detailed, but some of the characters move in that “paper cutout-style” of animation that occasionally gives the impression this began life as an online browser game.

True to its heritage, Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection is hard. Like the original series, the game often teaches you what not to do by killing you. This series has always been less about avoiding enemies the first go ’round and more about trying to remember where and how you died the last time you played. Like the original this game features checkpoints that prevent players from having to restart from the beginning of a level each time they die, but added to this version is the ability to respawn exactly where Sir Arthur met his demise. Die enough times in the same spot and the game will offer to temporarily lower the difficulty level, a feature that adds as much relief as it does guilt.

New to the franchise are Umbral Bees, which can be collected and used to acquire upgrades like magic spells and the ability to carry (and swap between) multiple weapons. The original was infamous for rewarding players with the worst possible weapon at the most inopportune time (we’re looking at you, stupid flaming torch), so the ability to swap weapons is greatly beneficial. All of the weapons from the original series are back including a few new ones for a total of eight.

Part of the game’s “resurrection” includes adding modern features to a nearly 40-year-old franchise. Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection features 31 challenges for players to unlock ranging from simple and unavoidable (“Use Magic for the First Time”) to the next to impossible (“Complete a Stage Without Dying Once”). Also new to the series are branching paths, offering players multiple ways to reach certain death.

At the end of each of the game’s seven levels players will face a boss. At the end of the first level I encountered a gigantic fire-breathing green pig with an even larger battle axe guarding the exit. After shooting the guard what seemed like a hundred times, his head flew off and landed on a second enemy to my left, making poor Sir Arthur the meat in a killer pig sandwich. After failing to defeat the boss dozens of times the game began offering me strategic hints; when that failed, it began offering to lower the difficultly level. After another dozen attempts I took the game up on its offer, and on my next attempt the guard that I had previously shot at least fifty times keeled over and died after half a dozen hits. Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection is more than happy to hand out all the abuse you’re willing to take, but will, eventually, offer you mercy when it feels you’re about to give up.

Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection features seven levels of increasingly maddening difficulty — and if that weren’t enough, once you’ve beat them all (so I’m told) you can replay “shadow” versions of them — which is a bit like saying if you get tired of climbing Mt. Everest, you can try again in the dark while wearing a blindfold.

If you grew up receiving participation trophies for everything you ever tried and having adults cut the crust off of your sandwiches, Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection isn’t for you. This game abuses you. On the other hand if you ever had your lunch money stolen by a bully or got told to “suck it up” after breaking a bone, this could be the game for you. Life isn’t fair and neither is this game, but if you can find the humor in getting kicked while you’re down, Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection might be the kick you’re looking for.

Circuit Superstars

Circuit Superstars is one of the most adorable looking racing games I’ve ever played. The cars are small and cute, the tracks are bright and colorful, and the whole game just screams fun. By the time you’re halfway through your first lap you’ll realize that none of that matters. Underneath its thick layer of cuteness lies one of the most challenging, diabolical, and devilishly addicting racing games around.

Circuit Superstars looks like a kid-friendly arcade-style racer, and if you play it as such you’ll quickly find yourself in last place — that is, if you finish at all. Enter turns at full throttle and you’ll repeatedly introduce your car’s bumper to metal guardrails and rubber tires. Take corners too quickly or smash the gas pedal a little to hard and you can drift your way around the track… for a while, until your bald tires begin to handle as as if they were slathered with Vaseline. The more you race the more you’ll realize laps are won by sticking to the perfect line, something that’s increasingly hard to pull off with opponents closing in from behind. Swap too much paint with other cars and your engine will take the brunt of the damage, spewing out smoke and dropping your top speed to a crawl.

The game features plenty of online and offline modes. As tempting as jumping into online racing sounds, unless you enjoy pain and humiliation it’ll behoove you to get a feel for the controls. The delicacy of the game’s controls are literally where the rubber hits the road. When using the keyboard, cars are controlled with the four arrow keys (gas, brake, left and right). Winning races is all about feathering and tapping those keys. This ain’t Pole Position, where whipping the steering wheel and stomping the accelerator will get you through a hairpin turn. In Circuit Superstars, if you’re barreling down a straightaway and haven’t already begun to slow down, it’s probably too late for you anyway. Let your wheels drift off the roadway into the grass and you’ll find yourself spinning faster than a freshman at his first kegger. It’s not always about going fast; it’s about being perfect and taking advantage of the few times your opponents aren’t. On this scaled down racer, the fastest line through a corner can be measured in fractions of an inch. The key to staying on the track is moderation, and you may find yourself tapping the arrows five, six, maybe seven times to find a corner’s perfect line.

The offline Grand Prix mode features twelve unique classes that feature everything from zippy hatchbacks and 70s muscle cars to offroad trucks. Each series contains five tracks, and each track must be raced twice — once in a timed qualifier, and immediately again against eleven other opponents. Winning the qualifying round is much easier than winning races with other cars that hold the perfect line and don’t budge when rammed. Note that progress cannot be saved here. Once a series has begun, players must complete all ten races in order to save their progress, which unfortunately prevents Circuit Superstars from being a “pick up and play” game. Drivers must earn a spot on the podium to unlock the next series, and each series contains four difficultly levels.

Taking the lead and maintaining it are two different things in this game. Even when you’re out front, I found myself one or two mistakes away from losing the lead. A single spin-out on the grass or a hard slam into the outside wall will have your opponents back on your six in no time. Whatever small leads you are able to build are quickly negated by the other racers’ innate ability to take the perfect line at the perfect speed around every corner every time. I found myself gnashing my teeth as I pulled slightly ahead on the straightaways only to be passed on the inside of every hairpin turn. Winning races feels like a real achievement — and again, this applies to the amateur class. When the game references difficulty levels, it’s being quite literal.

About the time players get a handle on the game’s controls they’ll graduate to ten-lap races with enough gas in their tanks to make it through about seven. Like most everything in the game, perfect pit stops come down to a matter of tight controls and expert timing. Too much time in the pit gulping fuel you don’t actually need to finish a race is a waste of precious seconds. Your pit crew will handle changing tires and engine repairs without your assistance so the trick to a successful pitstop is when and how long to stop. You’ll also need to monitor the status of your car’s health, tires, and fuel while racing. Finding the time to do that in a game where fractions of a second count is a challenge in itself.

Along with the game’s built-in modes, additional add-on content is available that will let you pit your driving skills up against television’s The Stig. One allows you to race against the Stig’s times on a digital replica of the show’s famous track, and the other places you on tricky-tracks that more resemble the skateparks from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater than any real track. Don’t bother until you’ve mastered the other modes, but the add-on is a good way to squeeze more entertainment out of the game’s engine.

At the time of this review I could not get the online option to work reliably. I spent large periods of time sitting in the solo only racing lobby waiting to be matched with other racers, something that rarely seems to happen. And when it did, the results were jerky (at best) and races frequently end when other players disconnect. The online mode is so bad that I assumed it must be a problem on my end (despite having gigabit fiber internet), but others have reported similar experiences. Currently the dream of racing others is a nightmare; whether or not this feature if fixed remains to be seen.

Circuit Superstars is one of those games that will have you quitting in frustration and returning with hopes of shaving extra seconds — maybe even a single second — off your lap times. The game doesn’t give out first place spots on the podium easily, and when you finally earn one there’s both joy and dread in the knowledge that more races (and difficulty levels) await you.

The All New, Old, but New Again, Atari 2600+

I only have vague memories of the world before Atari. Mostly what I remember is how amazed adults around me were with our new, magical box that turned our television into an interactive gaming experience. For the first time in most people’s lives they were able to control the images on their television. The Atari 2600 wasn’t the first videogame console released, but when it arrived, it exploded into homes. The Atari 2600 dominated the videogame market for several years. Everyone either had one or had a friend who did. Mattel’s Intellivision featured Atari 2600 games in most of its ads as a basis of comparison. The ColecoVision, a far more capable console, released an add-on peripheral that allowed inferior Atari 2600 games to be played on its console. After the 2600’s successor (the Atari 5200) failed to gain traction, Atari made sure their next console, the Atari 7800, was backward compatible with the 2600, which was a major selling point. The Atari 2600 was the sun around which the entire gaming universe orbited. The console’s final form factor, the Atari 2600 Jr., was still being manufactured and sold in stores in 1992 — that’s three years after the Sega Genesis was released.

Technology constantly evolves and it’s literally amazing that a game system containing 128 bytes of RAM remained so popular for so long. Games like Pitfall and Yars’ Revenge, both of which frequently appear on lists of the best video games of all time, were constrained to 4k worth of code. To many Gen-X gamers, the Atari 2600 retains a powerful nostalgic draw; for others, the system falls somewhere between technological curiosity and prehistoric footnote in gaming history.

Atari, or rather the modern conglomerate who purchased the trademark and is currently operating as Atari, is a mess. As owners of one of the most recognizable brands of all time, the company has experienced more misses than hits in recent years by selling pictures of vintage cartridges as NFTs and the recently released Atari VCS console, which went from “delayed” to “discounted” in record time. They are a company that does not understand their own brand, or what fans of it want. While all old fans of Atari really want are ways to play the original (and in some cases, updated versions of those) games, Atari spent the past two years creating virtual tennis shoes that could be worn in a metaverse that doesn’t exist and selling them to nobody.

In a case of “hit the hyperspace button enough times and you’ll eventually land inside an Asteroid,” Atari seems to have finally developed something their customers might actually want to purchase. Announced this week with a release date just in time for the 2023 holiday system is the all new Atari 2600+, Atari’s latest console. The Atari 2600+ is an updated version of the original Atari 2600 console that marries old and new technology in an interesting, amusing, but somewhat confusing way.

In the simplest of terms, the Atari 2600+ is a console that plays original Atari 2600 and 7800) cartridges from nearly 50 years ago, but comes with the ability to connect to a modern television. The system comes with 10 classic Atari games, one joystick, and an MSRP of $139.99.

Physically, the 2600+ closely resembles the vintage console on which it is based. It has been modeled after the slightly less popular “four-switch” model that relocated its difficulty switches to the rear of the machine and looks to be slightly smaller (and undoubtedly lighter) than a vintage model, but to anyone standing on the far side of the room, it passes. Along with those difficulty switches on the rear of the system, the past mingles with the present. The 2600+ features the same DB9 joystick ports as the original and is compatible with all old Atari joysticks; new features include a USB-C power connection, an HDMI port, and a switch to toggle between 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios.

Included in the box is an all new 10-in-1 cartridge. Many of the games, including Dodge ‘Em, Missile Command, Surround, Video Pinball, and Yars’ Revenge are all highly regarded games from the original Atari library. Unsurprisingly the cartridge does not contain any third-party or licensed titles, so there’s nothing from Activision or Imagic, and no arcade ports like Pac-Man or Donkey Kong. The included game pack should provide hours of entertainment, but those wanting to play other titles they remember will need to use their own cartridges which, fortunately, are still relatively inexpensive to acquire and amazingly resilient despite their age. In all my years of collecting Atari cartridges I could count the number of dead ones I’ve purchased on one hand. In the 2014 documentary Atari: Game Over, cartridges recovered after spending nearly four decades in an Alamogordo landfill worked perfectly. The weakest link for most Atari 2600 cartridges was the glue used to affix the labels.

While finding cartridges to play on the Atari 2600+ might be relatively simple, finding the market for this new console may prove to be a bigger challenge.

In 2017, Hyperkin released the RetroN 77, a third party clone that not only plays Atari 2600 cartridges and offers HDMI output, but also provides the ability to play Atari ROMs by way of SD-card. Obtaining Atari 2600 ROMs via the internet is elementary, and in just a few minutes RetroN 77 owners can sit down and play every 2600 game known to ever exist. To put it bluntly, the RetroN 77 beat the Atari 2600+ to the market by six years, has a highly desirable feature lacking from the 2600+, and is available on Amazon for less than half the price ($69.99) of the Atari 2600+.

It gets worse. While the original Atari 2600 used a built-in RF cable requiring an old-timey “computer/TV” switchbox to pump its video signal into a television, those old systems can be connected to any modern television with a coax connection using an inexpensive ($5) RF-to-Coax adapter, and for those more technically minded, A/V modification kits that add RCA video and audio output to an original Atari 2600 are available. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that people who own Atari 2600 cartridges most likely already own a console that can play them, whether it’s an original model from the 1970s or the reimagined RetroN 77. That doesn’t mean the Atari 2600+ isn’t a tough sell; it’s that it’s a tough sell today.

The final blow against Atari’s newly announced system is that under the hood, all the processing is being handled through emulation. Technically speaking it’s the most logical choice — from a price and manufacturing standpoint it makes much less sense to develop new versions of old chips and processors when Atari emulators have existed for nearly 30 years (the earliest ones were released for Windows 3.1 back in 1995) and can run on processers that cost as little as a few dollars; however, the biggest potential audience for this console is hardcore Atari fans. When a $15 Raspberry Pi Zero contains 1,000x the power required to accurately emulate Atari 2600 games and emulators exist on essentially any electronic device made in the past 30 years, launching a $140 console that leverages that same technology could be a tough sell. To the normal person the difference between emulation and a hardware-based system is imperceivable, but it is fair to say that people excited about a console able to play Atari 2600 cartridges in 2023 might not be a normal person.

For people disinterested in procuring piles of plastic or dabbling in emulation, there are alternative, legal ways to play these games. Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration, a beautiful collection of Atari games, interviews, and historic information, is available for $39.99 via Steam. The same collection is for sale through Atari’s website and is available for the Xbox One, PS4, and PS5. The collection is not all encompassing, but includes plenty to see and do for most gamers.

A final barely-mentioned feature of the Atari 2600+ is that, despite its name, also plays Atari 7800 games. The 7800 library consists of approximately 60 licensed games with graphics that rivaled other 8-bit systems of time (NES, Commodore 64), but was crippled by recycling the same sound chip used in the Atari 2600. Additionally, the Atari 7800 controller included two fire buttons, so any games requiring both buttons won’t work without the purchase of a vintage 7800 controller, which aren’t cheap. The fact that the 10-in-1 doesn’t include any Atari 7800 games and no Atari 7800 games are being shown in any of the promotional material shows that this is a side-feature and not a major selling point. The most logical explanation is that the emulator being used to power the system plays both.

Also touted in the launch and available separately are two new games (an enhanced version of Berzerk and a new title, Mr. Run and Jump) along with a “Paddle Bundle” that includes a set of paddles and a 4-in-1 cartridge including Breakout, Video Olympics, and Night Driver, and doesn’t include Warlords, Circus Atari, or Kaboom. The new games are being sold for $30 and the paddle pack is $40, which is a good price for anyone who doesn’t have a closet full of old paddles.

When broken down into its individual components, the Atari 2600+ faces an uphill battle — once again, we’re being offered moderately priced emulation machine that requires the use of original cartridges and lacks the ability to play acquired ROMs. It’s tough to see anyone but the most fervent Atari fans picking this up, and even then it feels like the potential market is limited. That being said, I also failed to see a market for other recent classic consoles including the NES and SNES classic, both of which flew off shelves and continue to sell today. When it comes to nostalgic gamers, common sense is not always the primary deciding factor.

Link: Atari 2600+

Tank Mouse (Hardware)

The tank mouse is a wireless mouse, meant to look like the mouse the Amiga had. There was a Kickstarter for it, but I can’t give money to Kickstarter any more, after all the times I have been burned. The amount hasn’t been much, but I get obsessed with being cheated. So I waited to see if this would actually be produced.

It was! It is!

It does not come with an instruction manual and it runs on batteries. I am ok with it running on batteries because it means they never considered having the power plug come out of the bottom of it as Apple does with the “Magic Mouse” (which is still the all-time worst “form over function” garbage design decision in anything, probably the worst single design decision in the whole of humanity).

It supports a Bluetooth connection in theory, and it also has a USB dongle if you want to go wireless. There are two versions you can buy – if you buy the more expensive version, you also get a plug for your Amiga (or other retro computer) and you can use this wireless Tank Mouse that way.

I did not know where the wireless dongle was. I went to put two AAA batteries in it, so I opened the door…. and there it was. It was something, as a decision, but who cares, I found it. I couldn’t get my Macbook for work to see it in Bluetooth mode, but it seems perfectly happy to work with the non-Bluetooth USB connector, so I am doing that.

I like how it feels. The buttons feel sturdy and responsive when I press them. It does seem really light, just in terms of mass, but I am ok with that, and a better reviewer would have a scale to compare the weight to the original Amiga version. But the Amiga version can’t be this light, it just caaaain’t. But that’s fine.

The Tank Mouse has a scroll section too! It’s right down on the top of the mouse itself. There is no visual way of “knowing” this – you just move your finger up and down the top of the thing, and you will scroll. It’s not 100% smooth just yet. We’ll see. The Gameball I was using, reviewed earlier, was a bit frustrating in that respect at first as well, so I am ok here giving this some time.

But yeah, I like it. I think I can get work done with it. I did find myself having to pick it off the wooden pad I “made” for it, and place it back in the middle. I don’t know how you people live like this and it means I will go back to a trackball for work eventually. Someday.

There is the matter of how it looks. I like how it looks. It looks…. odd, doesn’t it? BIT ODD INNIT? I do not like how many modern mice look. They are eyesores. I have a theory I am working on for designs like mice and trackballs and other computer hardware. What we used to see a lot in superhero films would be the discarding of the stories that, in the comic world, became famous. Well, that was dumb because if a story set in a comic survived well enough to become famous in 40 years it was probably good. Someone getting the go-ahead to make a “Fantastic Four” script from scratch and reinventing anything had an uphill battle and they lost those battles because all of those movies are terrible. I feel the same way about mice. I don’t think I will use this as a daily driver – I need to fix my CST Trackball – but they cared as much about design in the 1980s as we do now. The tank mouse has a good design for me: it fits my hand well and the buttons are satisfying. I like it well enough and I love it as a successful Kickstarter event.

You can get your own tank mouse over here at Sordan.ie.

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Ice Cream Jonsey

Galactic Civilizations 3 vs Galactic Civilizations 4 (PC)

This is long, so if it’s not interesting enough to read all the way through (and it isn’t), maybe when you’re playing GC4 and staring at the screen wondering WTF, bring this up and skip to the appropriate section and hopefully things will be slightly more comprehensible. Note that the comparison is Gal Civ 3 with all the expansions, and the current state of GC4: Supernova, which is at 1.6 as of this writing.

Fleet info from Galactic Civilizations 3 vs Galactic Civilizations 4.

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The Handheld You Don’t Need, But Will Love Regardless: The Retroid Pocket 3+

In my late 20s I began wearing cargo shorts, not because I liked them but because I needed the pockets. Along with my wallet and keys, I needed a pocket for my cell phone, a pocket for my Palm Pilot, a pocket for my digital camera, a pocket for my mp3 player, and, sometimes, a pocket for my handheld gaming system. It took a few years, but eventually I replaced all of those devices with an iPhone. Today the thought of carrying around an additional gadget to listen to music or access my calendar seems downright archaic, which fundamentally makes the Retroid Pocket 3+ a tough sell.

Retroid, a China-based company, released their first gaming system back in 2020. The original Retroid Pocket resembled an old school Gameboy but with Android guts and an impressive screen. The Retroid Pocket 2/2+ changed to a more modern horizontal layout, a form factor the 3/3+ have stuck with. From just a few feet away the Retroid 3+ could easily be mistaken for a Sony PSP or even a Nintendo Switch. All the magic is hidden inside.

The Retroid Pocket 3+ (RP3+) is approximately 3x faster than the Pocket 2+ and significantly outperforms the previous Retroid Pocket 3, a model that was only on the market a few months. The RP3+ runs on Android 11 and comes with 128GB of storage (there’s an external slot waiting to receive a second SD card). Under the hood it’s got a processor with eight cores running at 2GHz, a separate GPU, 4GB of RAM, WiFi, Bluetooth, a headphone jack, USB-C, and a mini-HDMI port. I’ve owned many laptops with less power and fewer ports. The RP3+ has an MSRP of $150, plus shipping (from China). For a few bucks more, they can be obtained through resellers on Amazon and eBay.

For controls, the device features a d-pad, four buttons, two clickable analog sticks, and two shoulder buttons per side along with start and select buttons. The device’s 4.7″ touchscreen (rumored to be new/old iPhone 6 stock) is responsive, bright, and beautiful. The 1334×750 (720p) display is more than adequate for handling your old games. Both the case and the buttons are available in multiple coors, all carefully designed to evoke feelings of nostalgia.

The RP3+ ships with a basic in-house game launcher, although you’re always only a swipe away from dropping into Android OS. Gamers well-versed in setting up emulators like RetroArch should have things up and running in no time. The front end creates all the necessary folder structures; all that’s required of you is to drop your ROMs onto the device (either over USB-C or directly onto the device’s SD card). Each emulator takes a bit of configuration and ROM scanning and all the things that go with Android emulation. If you’re familiar with this world you won’t have any trouble getting things moving. If I had any trouble at all configuring the console for the first time it was due to the tiny text and my aging eyeballs.

I was unsurprised to watch the device flawlessly handle every 8-bit and 16-bit game and emulator I tried. Sure, it’ll play your favorite vintage Atari 2600 games, but everything from NES and Super Nintendo to Sega Genesis and Gameboy Advance games play without breaking a sweat.

Computers from the same era have been invited to the party as well, with emulators for the Commodore 64/128, Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, and others available. All of these computer emulators have been designed for systems without physical keyboards and are relatively simple to navigate and use without one. The systems default emulators include ScummVM, for fans of point and click adventures like Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island.

Where things really start to get interesting is with the next generation of consoles, and the generations after that. Nintendo 64 and PlayStation games run perfectly on the handheld, as does pretty much everything from the following generation including the PlayStation 2, Sony PSP, GameCube, and Dreamcast. And in all fairness, to say these systems run perfectly is a bit of a disservice; they actually run better. Nearly all of the RP3+’s emulators leverage the unit’s CPU/GPU to improve the resolution of these old games. The fact this thing can play Dreamcast games is impressive enough. The fact that it can upscale them 3x from 640×480 up to 720p and make them look better than they did running on original hardware is a pleasant surprise.

Notoriously difficult to emulate systems like the Atari Jaguar and Sega Saturn also run perfectly. It’s not until you hit the Nintendo Wii that the system starts to stutter, and — I mean, the fact that this thing can run Wii games at all is bonkers — but with a few tweaks to the emulation settings it does a fairly competent job running many of the system’s side-scrolling and racing games.

While the RP3+ is heavily geared toward emulation, ultimately it’s running on Android which means it can do more than that. You can play Android games like Minecraft, listen to music, stream movies, and with the use of Steam Link, play Steam games. The RP3+ answers the meme “but will it run Doom?” by installing Quake out of the gate.

I can’t tell you if the Retroid Pocket 3+ is for you because I’m not even sure that it’s for me. The thought of owning a single handheld gaming console that can play everything from old blocky Atari games to relatively modern CD-based games would have blown my mind as a teenager. The problem is I’m no longer a teenager, and while it’s generally acceptable to play a few rounds of Candy Crush at your desk between meetings, pulling out a gaming device and shooting your way through Grand Theft Auto missions in the workplace is frowned upon. It’s true that the RP3+ is capable of playing tens if not hundreds of thousands of games, but my iPhone plays a few good ones and that’s usually all I have time to play while on the go — and, I always have it with me.

I don’t know if I have room in my life (or my pockets) for a dedicated handheld gaming console these days, but if I had to choose one, the Retroid Pocket 3+ would be it.

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Arkanoid: Eternal Battle (PC)

Ice Cream Jonsey
This is a great game.

The sound and graphics are amazing. Even the screeching zeros that descended upon Steam to ruin its reviews when Arkanoid: Eternal Battle had an initial free weekend — all of whom gave their worthless game design, marketing and biz advice! — more or less avoided the topic of how it looks and sounds. That’s because both are incredible. It’s a gorgeous video game with a soundtrack that I’d buy separately. It somehow incorporates the sounds that the arcade version of Arkanoid made with a modern electronica experience.

But more, this game was created by people that obviously have a lot of fondness for Arkanoid as an experience and franchise. I am playing it with a USB spinner from BD Retro Mods that simulates mouse controls and the fine-grain control I have over the paddle is flawless. Flawless! I used to own an Arkanoid arcade cabinet and the control here feels just as good as it did on real hardware. The original Arkanoid spinner had pretty great granularity, they had an extra set of teeth on the rotary dial. There hasn’t been a single time where I lost a life where it wasn’t my fault. You can zip around the boards in a way that feels right. I played with a trackball for this review and it was also really good. Controls are the best thing about this game, except for the sounds and graphics.

The retro mode, where you can play the original Arkanoid, is a delight. Yes, the screen has a filter on it to give it a curved CRT experience. I guess everyone complaining about this one lives in a reality without MAME, but in this one, anyone who wants to be playing the original on a flat rectangle of a screen can do so. I’m glad that the creators tried something different. The retro mode is the best thing about this game, except for the controls, sounds and graphics.

The new single-player mode is fun with new boards. It is true that I have only faced AIs in “Battle Mode,” but that’s fine. I prefer it actually. A computer frustrates me every single day, I’m glad to have the chance to spank them in this.

As for the initial cost of $39.99, I don’t know what to say, I guess global inflation is allowed to affect every single small business and large corporation on Earth with the exception of Pastagames. Who knew that the collective pent-up anger of a mercurial global economy was going to take its rage out on a small group of modern-day retro game enthusiasts. Five bucks on Steam gets you the worst port of Frenzy they could dig up a few clicks over; this is what a good game costs now. Plus, it’s on sale as I type this and the Thanksgiving and Christmas sales are coming.

This ware and Atari’s Gravitar: Recharged are the two best contemporary games involving 1980s arcade IP. Arkanoid – Eternal Battle is fun. It’s beautiful to look at and listen to, it has a wonderful flow, the new levels have just the right kind of learning curve and I didn’t even get into the new powerups, which I like. I hope Taito works with them for other games like Elevator Action or Qix or something next. Well done.

Get it on Steam.

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Ice Cream Jonsey

Tetris and Life

Last week while chatting with friends, the topic of Tetris came up. I suggested they watch Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters, a 2011 documentary about the world’s best Tetris players. Discussion continued and to make a long story short, a bunch of middle-aged men scattered across the country are once again playing Tetris and comparing high scores.

Most people know that Tetris was created in the Soviet Union by engineer Alexey Pajitnov. It took Pajitnov’s game four years to migrate to the United States. The first officially licensed version of Tetris, published by Spectrum Holobyte, appeared on US shelves in January of 1988. In the beginning of 1988, no one had heard of Tetris; by the end of the year, the game was literally everywhere. Licensed and unlicensed versions of the game appeared on every major home computer and video game console. Nintendo sold an astounding 8 million copies of the game for their Nintendo Entertainment System (NES); in 1989, they packaged the game with their new portable Game Boy and sold another 35 million copies. On the list of Top 10 Best Selling Video Games of All Time, Tetris appears twice. Nintendo’s version of Tetris is ranked number 10 with 43 million copies sold, while Electronic Art’s mobile version of Tetris, released in 2006, is number three on the list with 132 million sales. Neither of these numbers include the hundreds of Tetris spinoffs, sequels, and knock-offs.

Nintendo’s version of Tetris became the de facto standard for competitions. The consoles, games, and controllers are all identical, removing all variables except for a players’ skill. The original national Tetris championship took place at the Nintendo World Championship in 1990. Today, the Classic Tetris World Championship takes place annually as a part of the Portland Retro Gaming Expo. Each year, scores previously assumed to be unobtainable and levels assumed to be unreachable are regularly surpassed. In 2009, a Tetris fanatic maxed out the game’s score (999,999), an achievement thought to be impossible. As of today, more than 150 people have done the same. Some of them — most of them — hadn’t been born when Tetris debuted on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989.

Which brings things back to us — a group of middle-aged men revisiting Tetris at home during our lunch breaks and in between emails. All of us were alive in 1989. Some of us had already graduated high school.

In Tetris, players clear horizontal rows by placing falling bricks into position. Whether you refer to the pieces as Tetrominoes (their original name) or Tetriminos (their new name), there are only seven of them, each one consisting of four small squares (Minos) . The seven shapes are trademarked, copyrighted, and patented by the Tetris Company. Every kid had nicknames for the shapes, although they are frequently referred to as the letters they resemble: I, O, T, J, L, S, and Z. In 2007, GameFAQs ran a contest to determine the greatest video game mascot of all time. Originally submitted as a joke, the L-shaped block from Tetris was voted the winner.

The game starts out deceptively slow, with pieces floating toward the ground as if they were weird, geometrically-shaped feathers. There’s time — so much time! — to make plans. Beginners tend to eliminate rows one at a time as quickly as possible, while more experienced players go for the big points. The highest scoring move in the game, literally called a “Tetris,” is achieved by dropping a straight piece into a narrow gap, eliminating four rows at once. In early rounds, game pieces fall so slowly that arranging them is relatively simple. Each time one, two, or three lines are eliminated, the rows magically disappear and a short tone plays. Pull off a Tetris and a longer, happier tune plays as the screen flashes momentarily.

“This is easy,” you think to yourself. “Why would anyone do anything except clear four lines at a time?”

The first time my father saw the video game Space Invaders, he told me he didn’t like it. “There’s no way to win,” he said. “It just keeps going until you die.” The way he said it bothered me because I assumed he was talking about life. No matter how you plan, how much you save, or how much you own, life just keeps coming at you until you die. The closer you get to the end, the faster things move.

That’s how Tetris works, too. The first few levels tease you with a false sense of security. In the beginning pieces fall so slowly that most players press down on their controller to make them descend even more quickly. There aren’t many other controls to the game. Left and right move the pieces as they fall, and the controller’s two buttons rotate the pieces clockwise and counterclockwise, respectively.

“I didn’t know you could rotate the pieces in both directions,” says Dana Wilcox in the Ecstasy of Order documentary. It seems laughable that anyone who grew up playing the NES version of Tetris wouldn’t know that. For the record, Dana Wilcox maxed out the game’s score (999,999) in 2015, ostensibly still only spinning pieces clockwise. It’s kind of like interviewing one of the world’s best Super Mario Bros. players and hearing them exclaim, “wait, Mario can jump, too?”

In Tetris, the reward for success is punishment. After successfully eliminating 10 rows, the blocks change colors and the pace increases.

The game assists you in two ways. The right hand side of the screen shows what piece is coming next. The left hand side shows a running total of how many times each piece has been played — the game’s way of keeping itself honest. All of this information is helpful, until it isn’t.

Like life, things don’t always go according to plan. Sooner or later, the game will drop the wrong piece at the worst time. Sometimes this means burying a hole in your previously pristine tower of Tetrominoes. “Digging” is the art of working back down through the layers and eliminating those holes. Clearing rows while not continuing to bury those holes is an art unto itself; failure to do so is akin digging a hole in your backyard while dumping each load of dirt back in the hole.

When the stack of pieces gets too high, the music (“Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies,” by default) speeds up — an audio warning that danger is imminent. As the pace of the song increases, so does your heart rate. Suddenly, waiting for a straight piece all this time seems like a bad idea. This is the point where deals with the Devil are often made, and if he doesn’t deliver, it may be time to stick the proverbial square Tetromino into a round hole. When enough lines are cleared to get players out of the danger zone, the music returns to normal… for now.

Unfortunately those same cleared lines that temporarily saved you were just enough to advance you to the next level, and the game speeds up yet again. Has this been four times or five? The idea of holding down the controller’s d-pad to make pieces fall more quickly now seems preposterous. It becomes increasingly difficult to watch the playfield and still see what piece is coming next. Pieces begin to land in “less than optimal” positions. Now you don’t need just one straight piece to bail you out of this mess; you need two.

Maybe three.

Any semblance of a plan is long gone by now as things are out of control. I’ve reached level nine, and surely this is as fast as the game gets, right? (Spoiler: it’s not.) The pieces zoom down the screen as if they were thunderbolts thrown by Zeus. My stack of blocks has more holes in it than a piece of Swiss cheese, and even when I do manage to complete a row, the game refuses to slow down. Eventually I am unable to sustain the unrelenting attack. I spend the last few seconds of the game engaged in a Tetris Death Rattle, haphazardly tossing pieces to the left and right in a futile attempt to extend my game just a few more seconds. The pieces have nowhere left to go. They reach the top, and the game ends.

I check the clock. I’ve been playing for four minutes.

There’s no way to win. It just keeps going until you die.

If you’re lucky enough to achieve a high score you’ll be prompted to enter your name into a system that can’t save it. Any record of your heroic Tetrising will be erased the moment the machine is powered off, unless you snap a picture of it and share it with your middle-aged friends.

And now the game sits there, waiting for players to press “start” and begin again. Before restarting, it’s good to pause for a moment and let your pulse settle down. This is also a good time to let whichever deity you were pleading to that you were kidding about trading your first born for a straight piece, and apologize to anyone within earshot who may have overheard the frothing stream of foul words that spilled out of your mouth during the final round.

The game begins again, the screen wiped clean. “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies” plays slowly as the seemingly weightless pieces float toward the bottom of the screen.

“This time,” you say to yourself, “I’ve got a plan.”

“This time, I’m going to win.”

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