Game Opinion Summaries: Sega Genesis, Part 8: Letter N, plus two new games from D and L

Yes, this is last weekends’ update. It’s only seven summaries, but was delayed because of the holiday; I just got it done. I’ll try to have another full update this weekend… we’ll see. I have started on it. This time, I cover the four (sort of five) games I have from the letter N, plus two games I got too recently to include in their letters but am covering now, Darwin 4081 and The Lawnmower Man.

Games summarized in this update

Darwin 4081
The Lawnmower Man
NBA Jam (1994)
Newman Haas’ Indy Car featuring Nigel Mansell
NHL ’94
NHL ’96
NHL ’97

Darwin 4081 (J) – 1 player. Darwin 4081 is a vertical-scrolling shmup is a Sega port of a Data East arcade game. The game is an earlier release for the system, and didn’t release outside of Japan, unfortunately. Darwin 4081 is a visually average game and looks like the early release it is, but the controls and gameplay are solid fun, and there is some nice visual design here as well, particularly in the sprites. The game has a somewhat organic look, and it wouldn’t surprise me if this game helped inspire the visuals in Sega’s work soon afterwards on Sega’s only internally-developed Genesis shmup, Bio Hazard Battle. That is a better game than this, but Darwin 4081 is also good. This game feels a lot like a Toaplan game such as Kyuukyoku Tiger with a bit of Raiden in it, so the formula is good but unoriginal. You fly upwards, shooting badguys as they appear while dodging them and their fire. Much like a Toaplan game your ship’s movement is slow, so you’ll need to really pay attention to dodge the bullets. Unlike Toaplan games, though, here you actually can get speed powerups, though you never move as fast as you can in, say, a Gradius game. Dying resets your speed to default, though, so you’ll need to get used to the slow speed; only the best will be fast most of the time. Easier speed changes would be nice, but you do get used to it.

Now, Darwin 4081 is a simple game, but the game does have a somewhat unique weapon power-up system. As you kill enemies they drop powerups sometimes, as usual, and some of them will upgrade your ship’s power through various evolutions. Depending on the powerup type you get you can evolve to different forms, until you reach one of the final forms. The “Darwin” in the title refers to your ship, which will evolve between different forms as you progress. If you take damage you devolve, until when you get hit at the basic level you die and go back to the last checkpoint. I think there’s also a hidden timer that de-evolves you after staying in your current form for some amount of time, though I could be wrong about that. Regardless, you will be frequently changing weapons in this game. The numerous forms your ship can take are interesting, and progression is not always better — you will need to learn the different ship types in order to do well at this game, or you’ll get something which gives you a weaker weapon and be stuck with it at a boss. That’s not fun. Of the final forms though, the large ship that shoots a lot of bullets forward is a LOT better than the one that can place shots which stay on screen; those shots aren’t easily re-positionable, and enemies can’t be counted on to fly into them. It can be hard to control which form you get, too, because I usually want to just pick up all the powerups which drop, instead of choosing specific types. The powerups all look similar, too. Still, I like the powerup system for the most part. Your ship has more different forms and attack patterns than in most shmups of the day, and seeing the different ones is interesting, even if some are weaker than others.

As with many classic shmups, Darwin 4081 is a difficult game. If you can stay alive at max power with one of the best weapons, picking up powerups regularly to stay in one of the top ship forms while avoiding damage, the game will seem easy… until you die. And it’s easy to die even fully powered up, particularly at boss fights. Boss fights in this game can be hard, and since you get sent back to the last checkpoint when you die with only the basic, very weak weapon and no powerups and the game does have limited continues, this is one of those shooters where one death can doom your entire game no matter how many continues you have left, much like Gradius and such. I don’t mind this design, but it is frustrating when you get stuck at a boss and know you probably could beat the thing with the power you had the first time. The good controls and enemy patterns and sometimes interesting graphics will keep you coming back, though. Darwin 4081 is not one of the great Genesis shmups, since it has only average visuals and the weapon system can be confusing at times, but it is a good game that might be worth getting if you like the genre. Don’t set your expectations too high, but it’s more good than bad. This game isn’t as expensive as many import shmups, either, and the cart isn’t region-locked so it will work on a US Genesis so long as you have a way to get the cart into the system (again I use my 32X for this). Arcade port. The original arcade version is called Darwin 4078; I’m not sure why they added 3 years to the console port’s title. I’ve also heard this game called Super Real Darwin.

The Lawnmower Man
– 2 player simultaneous. The Lawnmower Man is a surprisingly interesting game. Based on the cyberpunk movie of the same name, The Lawnmower Man is half average run & gun-style platform-action game, and half pretty cool 3d runner. The game starts with a 3d stage. Here, you have a first-person perspective, with your arms on the sides of the screen, and run forwards, dodging scaling objects which come at you. They did an impressive job with the sprite-scaling here, presuming that the game uses scaling and not differently-sized sprites instead; I don’t know which it is. The environment sprites you are dodging are admittedly EXTREMELY low-resolution and appear to be made up of only a handful of giant pixels each, with no textures of course, but still it looks really cool. In some of these stages you just run to the end dodging walls, while in others you have a gun. This isn’t a first-person or rail shooter, though. Instead, in the 3d stages with weapons you will stop periodically for shooting-gallery style gun sections. They work, but shooting galleries aren’t as impressive as real 3d movement in a Genesis game. Still, these 3d levels are cool, a nice technical achievement, and are fun to play. In between the relatively short 3d levels, though, are the majority of the game, which is just a pretty average shooting-heavy platform-action game. You walk to the right, shoot the badguys, and try to avoid incoming fire; that’s about it. It’s somewhat fun, but isn’t as cool as the 3d stages. There are various weapons to pick up along the way, and some basic puzzle elements to solve along the way, though. In these stages your sprite is very small on the screen, a bit too small really. Bigger graphics and more impressive backgrounds would have been nice here. There are two playable characters and you can play these stages in two player simultaneous, but still, compared to the cool 3d stages, these bland-looking and only okay-playing levels are kind of disappointing. They won’t be easy, though! Enemies can take a good number of shots to take down, and bosses can be tricky. I do like that the game pulls off scaling (whether real or simulated with sprites I don’t know) effects in the main game as well, though. One early boss has you facing off against several long tentacle-like plants, and they rotate around the screen nicely. In conclusion, The Lawnmower Man is a good game. I wasn’t expecting much from a licensed game, but it surprised me. Sure, a majority of the game is a decent-but-not-great sidescrolling action game, but it is at least above average, and the cool 3d stages in between platformer levels are very cool. This game is a nice technical achievement, and a reasonably fun game as well. It could have been even better, but as it is it’s an above-average game well worth a try. Also on SNES. Other games based on the license are available on other platforms, such as a Sega CD/PC game, but they aren’t the same thing as this one.

NBA Jam (1994)- 1-4 player simultaneous (with EA multitap), cartridge save (EEPROM). NBA Jam is one of the greatest classic arcade games of the 1990s, and this Genesis port from Acclaim is great! Baseball aside I prefer my sports games arcade-styled, and Midway’s NBA Jam series is the pinnacle of arcade sports gaming. This first NBA Jam game is not my favorite in the series, but still it’s a fantastic game and still one of the most fun sports games around. A lot of older sports games aren’t too much fun to play now, but NBA Jam, at least, is still fantastic fun, particularly with multiple players! NBA Jam is a great single player game, but it’s even better in multiplayer, and the game has four player support with a multitap, which is great. So what is NBA Jam, for those who don’t know? The game is a two-on-two basketball game. It’s got a side-view-isometric game, with a court a couple of screens long that scrolls horizontally. It looks good. As it was originally an arcade game, gameplay is simple and focused on fun. There are no penalties except for goaltending (so don’t try to block shots which are descending towards the hoop), the ball cannot go out of bounds, you can make shots regularly that people almost never could in real life, whacking the other guys to steal away the ball is just fine, and more! It’s great fun stuff, and has a perfect balance of simplicity versus depth; this game may be easy to learn, but there’s a fair amount to master if you want to be good at it. By default you only need to keep track of one player while playing as well, because you can’t control your AI companion’s movement, though hitting the Shoot or Pass buttons while they have the ball will make them shoot, or pass to you. I like this system, and rarely have really wanted to play as my teammate, though the option does exist in this version; turn on Tag mode in the options menu if you want control to switch each time you pass the ball. I prefer Tag mode off, myself, but it is a nice option to have for those who like it; not all later NBA Jam-series games have the feature. The game also has game-time-length and difficulty options, but that’s about it.

Gameplay here is a simplified version of the game of basketball, with all the boring stuff like penalties or confusing things like five players stripped out. Controls are simple. You have a shoot/jump button, a pass/steal button, and a turbo button; the former commands are for when your team has the ball, the latter when the other team does. Holding turbo makes your actions stronger, but drains a turbo meter on screen. You can also fake a shot and do a few more advanced moves, but it’s a simple game. Your meter refills while not holding Turbo down. The control scheme is perfect and really could not be improved on. For modes, there are only two, and for single-player play the two are identical. The two modes either have you play against or with player two, to either compete against eachother or team up against the AI. It’s a nice option to have. For single player just choose either one, then a team. Your goal is to beat all of the NBA teams once each, in order from worst to best based on how good they were in 1993. The game doesn’t save a season in progress, each game is stand-alone and you can always play as a different team each game if you want. Your goal is just to beat all of the teams using the same initials. You enter your initials before each game, and this works as both your name ingame and your save file. Initials files save your stats, including number of NBA teams defeated, win-loss record, and more. The game can hold up to 16 save files (sets of initials), and you can delete them from a sub-menu of the options screen if you want. I love that this game has a chip-only save type, instead of a battery in the cart! No worrying about replacing a battery here, this chip should last a long time. Of course as with all non-battery-based chip saves it has a write limit, but those take a very long time to reach. I wish more 4th-gen games had non-batter chip saves, it’d have been great! Those cart batteries are dying these days, while NBA Jam is still doing fine.

Visually, NBA Jam looks good, though of course it doesn’t come close to the arcade original — there is no sprite scaling here, only several different sprite sizes the game will flip between, sprites are smaller and less colorful than in the arcades, and more. For a Genesis game this looks fine, though. The SNES version looks a bit better mostly thanks to that systems’ larger color palette, but it has no music during games, while on the Genesis there is in-game music, so each has a plus and a minus presentation-wise. The sequel NBA Jam T.E. is the same way, still no music on the SNES version sadly, which I have. There’s really only one arena to play in, but you’re going to be focused on the gameplay anyway, so it doesn’t matter. There really are only two downsides to this great game. First, the AI cheats massively, and will do everything it can to keep games close. This was an arcade game after all, Midway needed to keep you pouring quarters in the machine! If the game is close and the AI team has the ball at the buzzer, they’ll hit that long-distance three for sure. Also, you can’t play as Michael Jordan, the most famous NBA player ever, because his name and likeness would have required a separate license which Midway presumably couldn’t afford, or didn’t want to pay. That really is too bad, it’d have been so awesome to see Jordan in NBA Jam! He isn’t in most of the sequels either, though he is in EA’s Wii/PS3/360 new NBA Jam game. Sure, Scottie Pippen is very good too, but he’s no Jordan. Anyway, most of the other big stars are here, including Ewing, Malone, Olajuwon, etc.

Overall, NBA Jam is a fantastic game, and owning some version of this classic is a definite must! The 32X version of NBA Jam T.E. is probably my favorite console NBA Jam game, but this Genesis version of the first one is great as well. And with how cheap it is, there’s no reason not to pick it up the next time you see it for a dollar. I love this game, it’s outstanding. T.E. is even better, and adds features such as switching players between quarters, three players per team, injury ratings, hot-spots and turbo-speed modes, a rookies team, and more, but the first NBA Jam is still fantastic. It is a very simple game, even simpler than its successor since it doesn’t have the switching or injury components, but it’s brilliant in its simplicity. You won’t find a much more fun sports game than this. It’s great. Arcade port; NBA Jam was also released on the SNES, Game Boy, Game Gear, Sega CD, and more. I also have the Game Gear and Sega CD versions. The GG version isn’t as good (and has passwords for saving instead of on-cart saving), but the SCD version’s nice. It does have real sprite scaling, but otherwise is the same as the Genesis. The question is, though, are the long load times worth that slight advantage? And you lose the chip-only saving too, since it saves to the Sega CD, which uses a (rechargeable) battery.

Newman Haas’ IndyCar featuring Nigel Mansell – 1-2 player simultaneous, password save. Sort of like the Mario Andretti game above but with only open-wheel cars, more 3d elements, and a music option (with no sound effects, of course), Newman-Haas Indy Car featuring Nigel Mansell is an average open-wheel racing game from Gremlin and published by Acclaim. This game has a real IndyCar license, all 15 tracks from the season it’s based on, the real drivers, okay graphics with some nice-for-the-system attempts at polygonal 3d backdrops, and okay gameplay, but I find it far too tediously dull to stick with much like most F1 or IndyCar games. These usually seem to be games made for fans of this kind of racing, which I am not, and not for the average racing-game fan, and this one is no exception. The first of two SNES and Genesis racing games featuring Nigel Mansell, this racing game has sort of a linescroll / 3d hybrid style to it. You play from an in-car view, and the track is mostly smooth, linescroll-style curves, but the trackside environment has polygonal walls, bridges, and buildings. Some linescroll racers have a bit of this stuff, but this one is full of them, particularly here on Genesis; the SNES version isn’t as impressive thanks to the slow SNES CPU. Sure, the buildings are made up of one huge polygon per side, and the framerate is slow and choppy as it is with most all polygonal Genesis games, but still, few Genesis racers attempt real 3d. The game doesn’t feel like a full 3d world like Hard Drivin’, it does have those smooth curves and some alternating bands of color to simulate motion, but it’s more convincing than your average linescroll game is. Aurally, the game has either music or sound effects. As with the Genesis Lotus games, you can’t have both at once, sadly. That’s always an annoying limitation, and there’s no good reason for it either.

Ingame, IndyCar has a fairly simple driving model, but you will need practice to do well, as learning where to brake on the turns is crucial if you want to avoid going off the road and hitting things. The game has both Arcade and Sim modes. Sim mode punishes you more for crashes as you can get injured and have the race immediately end, and has longer races where you will need to pit in to refuel during the race, but the controls are pretty much the same in both, it seems. The game controls okay, but you really will need to brake to not go off the road on many turns. As for the courses, I like that the game has all 15 real tracks, but they feel nearly the same — backgrounds are similar everywhere, trackside objects are the same, and the tracks just don’t look very different. The game does have single race or a championship mode with password saving and some car customization options, so the featureset is good for the platform, but for me at least it doesn’t hold my interest long enough to want to attempt a championship. Overall Newman-Haas IndyCar featuring Nigel Mansell is an okay, average-at-best racing game that only fans of this kind of game are likely to really like. Also on SNES, though this version has better graphics. I have the SNES version of the other Nigel Mansell-licensed racing game; see my SNES list for that one. It’s also very mediocre.

NHL ’94 – … My collection spreadsheet claims I have this game, but if I do I don’t know where it is. I’m not sure if I ever actually had NHL ’94… though I do have the case back for the Sega CD version, but Tomcat Alley was and is the disc in that case. NHL ’94 is probably considered to be the best Genesis NHL game and one of the best hockey games ever, so I should have it… ah well.

NHL ’96 – 1-4 player simultaneous (with EA multitap), battery save. NHL ’96 is a good hockey game from EA. This is the fifth of seven NHL games EA released on the Genesis, and it’s one of the better ones. ’94 is the agreed-on favorite, but this one is good too. I’ve never liked hockey as a sport, and never have played any hockey game a lot, but sure, this seems to be fun. Don’t expect an in-depth summary here, though, I haven’t played this or any hockey game enough to do that. I can say that the game looks okay, plays well, and is sometimes fun to play, though I like other things more. The game lets you play as all of the teams from the 1995 season, and has single game, tournament, and season modes, with battery save to save seasons in progress, stats, and such. All arenas are the same except for the home teams’ logo in the center, but otherwise it’s a full-featured game for the time. The game has a vertically-oriented arena, so one goal is on the top and the other is on the bottom, with a top-down view of the ice. Gameplay is simple; you have a shoot button, a pass/swipe at puck button, and that’s about it. It’s easy to learn and plays well. Gameplay is simple and straightforward, and button-mashing seems to work well when fighting over the ball. This does lead to penalties, which are annoying and too frequent, but you can turn those off if you like. Goalies are hard to score on, though, so games are often tediously low-scoring affairs; I like the arcadey fun of Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey for the N64 more than this more realistic kind of goalie. Still, it is possible to score, just not often. The game has three difficulty settings, and even someone who almost never plays this kind of game like me can regularly win games on the lowest setting, which is nice. Overall, this is a good hockey game, and can be fun particularly in multiplayer, but I don’t like hockey as a sport and always get bored with these games after a couple of games. No hockey game has ever held my interest long-term, but I do like this simple kind of game more than the overly complex ones of today. Having at least one Genesis NHL game is pretty much a must, though, for any Genesis collector; they’re super-common and worth a play, particularly with a friend. There is also a SNES game of the same name, though it’s not the same as this Genesis version. I know the Genesis EA games are mostly regarded as superior, but I don’t know if I’ve ever played the SNES ones.

NHL ’97 – 1-4 player simultaneous (with EA multitap), battery save. NHL ’97 is basically NHL ’96 but with a roster update, a new Skills Challenge mode which lets you play some kind-of-boring hockey skill tests, maybe slightly improved graphics (and I mean slightly!), and that’s about it. Sure, they were working from a good base, but this is one lazy sequel, as sports-game sequels often are. Again this is an okay game, but my dislike of hockey and sparse scoring makes me get bored after a game or two and I haven’t played it beyond a handful of matches. As with everything else, the AI seems to be about the same as the last game. There really isn’t any reason to have both NHL ’96 and this game unless you really love the series or hockey games. NHL ’98 is apparently more of the same. Again there is also a SNES version, though it’s not the same as this game.

About Brian

Computer and video game lover
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