Version tested: Wii
Can you feel that? It's the fabled Friday Feeling (except on Saturday), and it's the sensation you feel when another batch of freshly greased Virtual Console releases slide into your brainsphere. This week brings us balloons, blue balls and - OMG! - aliens on the moon! And, as usual, I'll be dipping into the existing VC line-up for another random selection of yesteryear re-releases to see if they deserve to tempt the Wii Points from your cyber-wallet.
Wii Points: 500
I think it's fair to say that a fairly major part of the appeal of retro games is the way they can take us back to a simpler time. They provide a tangible bridge back to a childhood state of mind, before adult cynicism came along and made it harder for us to simply enjoy things for what they are. A time when you could play a game in which you guided a sentient Satsuma through a maze made entirely from lizards and never once thought it strange.
Balloon Fight fits into that cosy niche quite neatly. Judged through modern adult eyes the concept - flapping around the screen with balloons strapped to your back, trying to burst the balloons attached to pointy-faced dinosaur things - is both silly and unoriginal. It's a pretty obvious copy of Joust, a game which boasted knights riding on flying ostriches, yet another bizarre moment of game logic that we happily accepted in our salad days.
If you don't mind constantly having to hammer the button to stay aloft the experience is not unpleasant in 2007. It certainly has the immediate purity required to prove surprisingly addictive, while the score-chasing Balloon Ride mode - most recently revived in Wario Ware: Smooth Moves - is a fun little extra.
It's only really worth the download if you plan on playing it with a friend though. The inclusion of another human element makes the frantic flapping funny rather than annoying, and it's a game where vindictive competition is much more fun than clearing the levels properly.
Adventures of Lolo
Wii Points: 500
The first of three unbearably twee puzzle games from Kirby creators HAL Laboratories, The Adventures of Lolo deserves credit for not being yet another cutesy platformer and - coming in at the bottom end of the VC price range - is worth considering as a diverting casual game.
The story follows Lolo as he battles through a castle to save Lala and...yeah, let's not even bother with that. It's a top down maze game, most similar to Pengo. You're able to move certain monsters and blocks out of your way, within certain limits, and must collect all the hearts on the screen before the exit will open. The difficulty curve is nicely judged, with new twists on the formula introduced gradually, and the later levels offer some serious head-scratching as you work out which order you need to move things around.
Not the sort of classic title that everyone should rush to own, but certainly the sort of game you'll be glad to have to hand if you enjoy bite-sized strategic puzzling.
Platform: TurboGrafx 16
Wii Points: 600
Aliens have infested the moon! How? Why? What? It doesn't matter! Just get in your lone spaceship and kill them to pieces!
While Dead Moon lacks the classy touches that make R-Type the king of its shooty castle, it's still not a bad effort and a much better download for shooter fans than Blazing Lasers. You get the usual procession of enemies, weapon pods that reveal power-ups when shot, and a steadily escalating arsenal of ridiculous weaponry that carves through the advancing hordes like a hot knife through a squirrel.
Your prolonged survival is aided by a cunning system that takes away a power-up with each hit, rather than an energy bar or one-hit-kill system, and experienced blasters are unlikely to break much of a sweat cutting a swathe through the six levels on offer. Only the end-of-level bosses provide a real challenge, and even then it's just a case of finding the weak spot and dodging the onslaught.
Still, it's a smooth and colourful shoot-'em-up that wouldn't have looked out of place in a 1991 arcade.
Wii Points: 500
What is it with tiny motorbikes? I don't mean those stupid little clown bikes that Asbo monkeys use to speed around housing estates, like tracksuit-clad wasps, but dinky little bikes in videogames. While Excitebike doesn't have quite the same surreal genius as Wheelie - there's no dodging enormous bouncing hedgehogs - it does share that same instant appeal. Simply razzing a little bike off ramps never seems to get old.
Offering a surprisingly generous spread of game options - plus a level editor - this is one of those rare racing games where even the time trials can be fun. Once you add the AI rival bikes into the equation, it's even more insanely chaotic. The more you play, the more you realise that there are all sorts of subtleties to the seemingly basic controls as well. Engine temperature must be kept low, but you can rev the engine that little bit harder - at the cost of a hotter engine - to really blast the jumps. Hitting chevrons on the track cools you down, but only if you hit them in time. You can even rotate your bike in the air, to maximise height or distance, or to line yourself up for a perfect landing.
There may be better bike games out there now, but Excitebike's instantly appealing mini motocross mayhem still works beautifully today.
Wii Points: 500
Pop quiz: how many games can you think of in which clubbing seals plays a vital role? Answer: just one, Ice Climber.
Admittedly, you wouldn't know it from the sanitised western version available here, but the Japanese original game found you crushing the skulls of doe-eyed seal pups in order to speed your advance through the game. As the title suggests, you're climbing up some ice. A mountain, to be precise, and all because a beastly condor has stolen your aubergine. Remember what I said about Balloon Fight? About how we never used to bat an eyelid at this stuff? God, we were na´ve.
Anyway, you have to ascend up the level by bashing your way through platforms above, fending off polar creatures (but emphatically no seals, Mr Greenpeace, sir) until you reach the top and get to take a swing at that bloody vegetable-stealing bird.
It's simple, it's cute and - with two players - it's undemanding fun. It's no surprise that Taito produced a very similar game just one year after Ice Climber debuted, in which two dinosaurs made a similar ascent using bubbles instead of bashing. While Bubble Bobble is the superior game, Ice Climber is still worth having on your console.
Wii Points: 800
Nobody really knows why this legendary run-and-gun series had to undergo a sanitised overhaul in Europe, but here it is - ruff n' tuff Arnie commandos were switched for kewl robots, while the title switched from Contra III to Probotector. Which actually sounds a lot ruder.
Whatever the reasoning behind the switcheroo, the end result is much the same - a savage and exhilarating shoot-'em up stuffed full of beefy weapons, pounding music and non-stop action. It is, of course, ferociously hard but it's the right sort of hardness (again with the rudeness, sorry). This is the sort of game where you're always just on the outer edge of being in control. You're barrelling forwards, spewing bullets and lasers in every direction, and for every time you escape death through your own cat-like reflexes, you suspect there are moments of sheer luck where you emerge from the carnage unscathed against the odds.
Apart from that bloody dog thing on Level 1. He gets me every time.
It's a nicely evolved title, with new abilities and small tweaks to the formula that improve the gameplay in big ways - being able to hold down the fire button for automatic fire is an absolute lifesaver - and for those with the patience to learn its patterns and face its challenge, it's a solid addition to the VC line-up.
Super Mario World
Wii Points: 800
There is, inevitably, a lot of filler making up the 96 titles on the Virtual Console as of this week. However, the good stuff...is really good. So much so that selecting titles to roundup each week is really straining my thesaurus. While there are arguments in favour of all three console download services, the Wii certainly has a headstart as far as bona fide 10/10 classics are concerned.
Wait, did I just give the score away?
Aah, you knew it was coming. For most of us, this game was our first introduction to the SNES, bundled as it was alongside Super Mario All-Stars in a bumper Mario console package. As a display of what was in store, it was perfect.
You have to remember that when Super Mario World first came out (1990 in Japan, 1992 over here) platform games were still emerging from the dark ages. Linear design crudely shoved you ever forwards, never allowing you to go back and explore areas again - even if the area in question had only just vanished off-screen behind you. By allowing you to roam up, down, left and right at will - and by tying the whole experience together with an RPG style overworld where secret locations could be unearthed and switches thrown to effect the whole game - SMW pretty much invented the platform game as we know it today. It may have been one small step for Nintendo, but it was an evolutionary leap for gaming.
As for its value today, it passed the simplest of tests with flying colours. This column nearly missed its deadline, because I downloaded Super Mario World for reappraisal and ended up losing the best part of an afternoon to rediscovering its impeccable design. It's awesome. You need to have it.
Wii Points: 800
It's funny. Most people remember the '80s as being the gaudy, hollow decade of style before substance, but the 1990s managed to be just as awful but without even the decency to wear legwarmers.
It was the decade when summer blockbusters hit their nadir with Godzilla, Batman & Robin and The Avengers. The decade when the comic book industry vanished into a haze of outrageously proportioned muscles and limited edition embossed foil covers. And as for games...how could we forget the horrors unleashed in pursuit of the unholy trinity of FMV, VR and CGI?
Vectorman isn't as bad as Rise of the Robots or Night Trap, but the title still betrays its obsession with a now outdated graphical effect over any sort of carefully crafted gameplay, the gimmick in this case being pre-rendered CG models rather than sprites. But what looked impossibly futuristic in 1995 isn't all that special over ten years later, and the game just doesn't have enough meat on its bones to overcome the loss of its selling point.
You're left with a rather plodding platformer, a bit like a duller, slower version of Strider with the athletic Soviet rebel replaced by a robot made of green balls. You can power up your weapon, and transform into different shapes, but there's nothing here that isn't done better in other games on the VC. It's not a bad game, as such, it's just a rather pointless title to revive for today's gamers.
Platform: TurboGrafx 16
Wii Points: 600
Yeesh. The old top-down racing game has served us well over the years - from Super Off-Road to Micro Machines, it's an accessible sub-genre that even the most dedicated petrolhead can see the fun in. This must make Motoroader the exception that proves the rule.
Blighted by a truly painful control system, you inch around some bland tracks, changing direction sometimes by steering in the direction relative to where your car is pointing (i.e. as you go down the screen left and right are reversed) but sometimes, apparently, by steering in the direction relative to the screen. So if you're headed left to right, and want to steer up, you press up rather than left. Baffled? Amazingly, it's even more confusing in practice.
What this means is that you often veer off the track, and fall prey to the catch-up system - because even in single-player mode the game follows the lead car, not the one you're controlling. As you get left behind, a blue circle drags you back to the rest of the pack - but leaves you facing in whichever direction you were when it picked you up. Which, needless to say, is often not the way you want to be going.
And on top of all that, the game is slower than snail with a very casual attitude to punctuality. You can earn money to improve your car, but even doubling the engine size still leaves your car groaning around the track rather than rocketing. With so many great TG16 games worthy of rediscovery, it's a little strange that this one has escaped from the dungeon.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Wii Points: 1000
One of the strongest arguments for buying the Wii is that it allows you to play the Zelda saga, from NES through SNES and N64 up to Twilight Princess. That's a lot of gaming, all accessible from one plinky-plonky menu. And, let's be honest, that's a lot of really bloody great gaming to boot.
Ocarina of Time found Link bursting into glorious 3D life and, while I'd never be so shallow as to suggest that snazzy graphics are enough to automatically make it an improvement over Link to the Past, the move to three dimensions offers more than just eye candy. It fleshes out the world of Hyrule, opens up whole new avenues of exploration and sucks you into its fantasy world in a way that even the best-crafted 2D game could never accomplish. It also does things with this environment that other games would take years to get around to. Compare the sheer wealth of movement and combat options available to Link with Lara's initial stumbles around empty caverns, taking pot shots at wandering wolves. No contest.
It also works hand in hand with Mario 64 to showcase just what a showman Miyamoto could be. The opening journey through Kokiri Forest to Link's house, all viewed from the point of view of Navi the fairy, is an absolute masterclass in how to set a scene with charm and elegance. Not only does it show off the 3D graphics, it teases you with possibilities - you're going to be free to explore this world in a moment, the game whispers in your ear. The sexy little tease.
So, once again, the sparse N64 offerings on the VC still prove to be the best reason to invest in Wii Points. If you download The Legend of Zelda, Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time you'll have spent around twenty of your real world English pounds, and have three absolutely seminal games that will last you for months. By which time there might be some new Wii games worth buying in the shops. Ho ho!