Virtual Console Roundup

Sonic 2, Golden Axe 2, Ecco 2, Dragon Spirit.

Butter some scones and fly bunting from the rafters, it's a good week on the Virtual Console. Four - count 'em, four - new games to choose from, with nary a stinker in the bunch. One of them is even (whisper it) a stone-cold classic. Come, join me as we find out what's up with the downloads.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2

  • Platform: Megadrive
  • Wii Points: 800

One of the games that everyone seems to have been waiting for, Sonic's second outing finally arrives on the virtual shores of the UK. Was it worth the wait? Fo' sure.

While I still can't get my head around the idea of playing classic Sonic on a Nintendo console (and when the Mario & Sonic Olympics game arrives I suspect my ageing brain will simply dissolve) this is the first must-have title to hit the VC for several weeks. That's because, while the original Sonic is deserving of its place in gaming history, it's Sonic 2 that most people are thinking of when they recall classic Sonic moments. This is simply great gaming.

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The spin dash attack made its debut here, as did the 3D half-pipe bonus stages which so impressed us fifteen years ago. The stages are longer and more intricate, yet somehow more fun to speed through. Oh yeah, and Tails, that doe-eyed mutant ginger git, also turns up for the first time, sowing the seeds for hundreds of disturbing slash fiction websites. Of course, he also provides us with the fun (if squashed) two-player versus mode, but this only just compensates for his generic cutesy sidekickiness.

What's particularly great about Sonic is that his games always complemented Mario rather than trying to copy them beat for beat. Blinkered fools would always scoff that Sonic was just about belting from left to right, using the too-powerful spin attack to carve through enemies. And, yes, there's an immediate sense of exhilarating gratification to be had in such an approach but, if you take the time to stop and explore, each level also features dozens of "how do I get up there?" areas, and sections of utterly inspired design. The thing that both the naysayers and subsequent uninspired copyists failed to understand is that Sonic was never just about mindless extreme speed. There's a beautifully crafted platform game in here as well.

On the subject of speed, our old foe PAL Slowdown sadly rears his ugly head here. Casual players won't notice, but those with vivid recollections of the original will be all too aware that the blue hedgehog isn't quite as nippy as he once was. The problem afflicts all Megadrive games on the VC to some extent but Sonic, with his emphasis on speed, suffers more than most. That's about the only criticism that can be levelled at this long-awaited classic though, so stop reading and start downloading. Then come back and carry on reading.

9/10

Golden Axe II

  • Platform: Megadrive
  • Wii Points: 800
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If you've already downloaded the original Golden Axe then the value of this game automatically diminishes. Even on its release back in 1991, people were complaining that it was basically a re-skin of the first game.

It was also a Megadrive exclusive, and completely unrelated to the "official" Golden Axe sequel, Revenge of Death Adder, which hit arcades a few years later. Two-player co-op returns, and is joined by The Duel, a survival mode in which you fight wave after wave of enemies in an arena setting.

Re-released on a download service that is hardly suffering from a lack of side-scrolling brawlers, there's really no reason to make this a priority and yet...it's still damn good fun. Not a patch on Streets of Rage, but certainly in the upper echelons of its genre. Your move-set is nicely varied, with numerous context-sensitive slashes, grapples and throws, while the ability to ride dragons and unleash smart bomb magic attacks go some way to break up the relentless pounding. It's also kind of easy, so those who shiver at the thought of the legendary toughness of retro games need not be afraid. Decent, then, but non-essential.

7/10

Ecco: The Tides of Time

  • Platform: Megadrive
  • Wii Points: 800
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The Ecco games have always walked the fine line between barmy innovation and unbearable New Age cobblers. Sometimes the games strayed too far from that line, with tales of future utopias where helium-powered dolphins fly around an interconnected oceanic wonderland in the sky.

Such is the case here, in the second Ecco game, and the last to grace the Megadrive. Ecco must swim around, finding glyphs, singing to fellow sea creatures and ramming enemies with his nose. He also gains the ability to shapeshift into other undersea beasts, a feat which adds some much-needed variety while nudging things into a whole new bracket of odd. Strip away the trippy aqua-cosmic ambience, however, and what you're left with is a passable maze game with some awkward fetch-quest puzzling, escort missions and often clumsy combat.

Ending in levels set in a far-future where the game tinkers with gravity and other disorienting effects, there's no doubting that Ecco represents the sort of genuinely leftfield game concept that we rarely see today. However, while the weirdness of it is almost enough to mask the rough edges of the gameplay, the famously brutal difficulty will make it hard for most players to enjoy.

While I suspect this will be the one that gets me crucified by irate nostalgics (and, really, my week just isn't complete until that happens) I can't help feeling that 800 points is a lot to ask for a game that few will understand, and even fewer will want to finish.

6/10

Dragon Spirit

  • Platform: TurboGrafx16
  • Wii Points: 600

Xevious with dragons. And there's your review.

[*Prod* - Ed]

Okay, Dragon Spirit is another from the seemingly endless TurboGrafx shoot-'em-up pouch. Like most of its kinfolk, it's a bright, colourful and effective blaster. You can shoot aerial enemies, or drop bombs on ground-based baddies. Crack open eggs to power-up your attacks (in the form of additional heads on your dragon - a nice touch) or to improve your chances of survival by toughening your scaly hide. Scroll up the screen, shooty shooty shooty, fight the boss, repeat until dead (or, under extraordinary circumstances, you finish the game).

To be fair, the game does avoid the one-hit-kill system that so frustrates many of you, opting for three health blobs per life that erode with each hit and, while it's never anything more than generic, it's not a bad little game on its own terms.

6/10

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