Version tested: Wii
So this is the week that the European Virtual Console finally gets its telegram from The Queen. One hundred games old! Well done you. Have a custard cream. Strange, then, that the week doesn't offer some kind of celebratory blow-out as we're getting just two new games, one of which is utter balls. But enough of my yakkin', let's strip off, plunge into the frothy VC bathwater and rummage around together for the soap of gaming greatness...
Wii Points: 1000
So this is the century-marking 100th addition to the line up. It's an N64 title, which is good news, and it's also a super-slinky futuristic racer which adds some much needed adrenalin and speed to the rather docile herd of platformers, elderly beat-'em-ups and RPGs already grazing in the VC meadow.
Obviously, the decision to revive an aging space-racey driving series for the N64 was at least partially inspired by the success of WipEout, which had pretty much defined the PlayStation generation a few years previous, but the attempts to crib some of that game's future-cool don't sit that well with the Nintendo aesthetic. The vehicle designs are chunky and unappealing, while trackside details are all but non-existent.
The upside is that this sparse visual nature means that the game moved at a dazzling 60fps, a feat which this emulated version does a mostly decent job of matching, even though there are some tiny borders creeping in at the top and bottom. You also get four-player elimination races (with its peculiar fruit machine mini-game for defeated racers), deathmatches where you have to destroy 30 other vehicles and even the option for randomly generated tracks. The slippery analogue control takes some getting used to, especially on tight bends, but once mastered the looping, gravity-defying courses are a joy to pelt around.
Personally, I actually prefer F-Zero's wide sweeping courses to the claustrophobic chutes of WipEout and, for anyone wishing there was a really fast and aggressive racing game on the system, this is essential. I just can't help thinking that there could have been a more...momentous title with which to break the 100 game ceiling though. Maybe something involving a paper-thin plumber?
JJ & Jeff
Wii Points: 600
There have been weird additions to the VC in the past, but few compare to this choice. Originally based on a Japanese comedy show, it's a scatological platforming beat-'em-up. Sort of.
JJ and Jeff are two private man-detectives, quite possibly lovers given their intimate banter at the start, who are on the trail of a kidnapped "wealthy man". You choose which of the pair you want to play as (it makes no real difference) and then you set off from right to left, spraying bugs, kicking moles and slapping your partner whenever you find them mucking about in the scenery.
Toned down from the Japanese original, in which the characters farted their enemies to death rather than using spray cans, this is still full of childish potty humour. Seagulls launch enormous brown coils of poo at your head, characters stop to have a wee, and mini-games loiter in public toilets like Uncle Bobby and his packet of sweets. And all are lovingly rendered in the expected TurboGrafx colourful cartoon style, of course.
It's just a shame that the gameplay is an absolute horror show. Most of the levels are simply a case of walking across the screen - for a platform game, actual platforms are sporadic at best. The controls aren't much better. Everyone moves like they're on ice, with each jump leading into a slippery skid that usually results in more health being depleted by a caterpillar. Or something equally stupid.
The VC is absolutely loaded with similar yet superior offerings, so why this goofy joke was deemed worthy of upload is something of a mystery.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
Wii Points: 500
Much as Mario 2 ( added to the VC a few weeks ago) fudged a winning formula for its sophomore effort, so Zelda's first sequel is often left in a dark corner when the saga is being praised, like an embarrassing cousin who smells of radishes.
Such shame is not really justified, as Zelda II isn't a bad RPG once you get past the off-putting switch from top-down to side-on. If you can manage to do that, then you'll discover a game that expanded on many of the areas that would come to define the series, as well as introducing new features that would become staples of the genre.
Combat is more tactical, experience points are more useful, and the magic system is well thought-out. The gameworld also feels more alive, with loads more NPCs and random conversations to be had.
But it is hard to get past the fact that, after the natural charms of the first game, this looks pretty ugly. Link has changed from an appealing little avatar into a creepy, prancing gnome, to the extent that crap horror fans can squint a bit and pretend this is Leprechaun: The Game.
It's easy to see why this entry has fallen between the cracks, and also why they switched back to the old ways for Link to the Past, but this still offers decent adventuring and at 500 points is worth having. You should probably play all the others first though.
Wii Points: 500
This game has raised some troubling questions for me. Not because it features more whips and candlesticks than a 1976 swingers party, but because I'm torn on the relative merits of downloading this version when the vastly superior SNES outing, Castlevania IV, is also available.
This troubles me because I've already gone on the record as encouraging, nay demanding, that people should sample both Legend of Zelda and Ocarina of Time despite the technical gulf between them. However, I can't seem to find the equivalent value in owning the earliest Castlevania when that particular template was improved tenfold in the later game.
I'm also a little bit scared of hardcore Castlevania fans, who lurk in the shadows, ready to pounce the moment I suggest that the absence of a coherent and distinct storyline makes Belmont's early adventures less worthy of replay than Link's epic quests. On the other hand, they might just sulk and cry into their cosplay outfits and say mean things about me on LiveJournal. Silly old Goths.
So, Castlevania. Taken on its own merits, it's a fine platform adventure with six linear stages of candle-whipping fun. Taken as part of the overall VC buffet, you should probably pile your plate high with the gourmet SNES version first, and come back for NES pudding if you like the taste.
Mighty Bomb Jack
Wii Points: 500
Not just any old Bomb Jack, you'll notice. Mighty Bomb Jack. Hell yeah. Makes Mario's plain old "super" prefix look positively tame, that's for sure.
It's not a bad little game, either. The boxed-in bomb-defusing of the 1984 arcade original is still here, now restricted to end-of-level challenges, with fairly clever platforming sections in between. Clever? Well, kind of. Bomb Jack himself can glide and float, while collecting Mighty Coins allows you to change the colour of your costume. Different costumes enable different abilities - you can only open treasure chests while clad in orange, for instance. It's not exactly deep, but it does introduce a small measure of thought and tactics, as you work out the best way to use the items you've found to maximise your score.
While the game itself is actually quite easy, at least compared to other titles of the same vintage, it does feature one infamously cruel design feature. Should you play well enough, amassing more than nine coins or 99 seconds on the timer, you're taken to the Torture Room. If you don't perform a sequence of jumps within a time limit you lose a life. If you do complete the challenge, you still lose all your coins, the clock resets to 60 seconds and you have to start the level again. Boo-yah!
The Legend of the Mystical Ninja
Wii Points: 800
An oddball role-playing platform adventure hybrid, Mystical Ninja is a handy example of one of the recurring flaws in the VC no-frills set up. You're dropped into the middle of a typically baffling Japanese story with precious little idea of what you're expected to do, let alone how you should do it. Some context or an explanation of what's in store before downloading would certainly help players hit the ground running.
Put simply, you explore a town - amassing items and playing mini-games - and then head to a platform-leaping action section which ends with a boss fight. Two-player co-op is included, allowing the characters to ride piggyback with one controlling movement, the other attacks. But if you downloaded this as a blind buy, you'd have to figure all of that out for yourself.
Even when you know what's going on, it's still a bit of a well-intentioned muddle to be honest. The genre-hopping doesn't really gel, while the exploration is hampered by the need to constantly clobber wandering civilians and dodge flapping fish. The graphics are cute though, in a Manga-meets-Dogtanian sort of way.
Sword of Vermilion
Wii Points: 800
So, it's an RPG. Your character is the long lost son of a murdered king. You've inherited a magic ring. Dark forces are gathering and...stop me if you've heard this before.
Even though it came from the fair hand of Yu Suzuki, there's not much to recommend in Sword of Vermilion. It's the sort of game where you start with everyone urging you to rush home, yet you have no idea where home is. From its cookie-cutter fantasy milieu (your adopted father is called Blade and there's a land called Excalabria) to the fussy little charmless sprites, the whole enterprise reeks of an office memo that simply read "SEGA needs a Zelda".
Unfortunately, the desire to experiment with formula clearly got the better of them, and the game lurches from one style to another, never settling on a consistent (or playable) combination. Traditional top-down RPG exploration in towns gives way to a scrolling 3D maze overworld which switches to an awful side-on slashing mini-game during random monster encounters which then switches to platform-style leaping for boss fights.
It's the combat that really sinks this one - horribly clumsy, it reduces the carefully calibrated rules and statistics of better titles to a question of how fast you can mash the joypad. The original Zelda is available for 300 points less, and is an absolute masterpiece. Don't waste your time with this ham-fisted knock off.
Wii Points: 600
Aah, were we really so lucky to have an ongoing videogame character called Bonk? Just think how easy that made the lives of us gamesy writing people. Ripe double-entendres, ready for the picking. To even get close to that sort of pre-packaged comedy gold today, we'd probably need Sony to unveil a new next-gen platforming hero called Shaggy Nobs.
Anyway, Bonk is a baby. A baby caveman. With a huge head. Which he uses to "bonk" the various creatures which stand between him and...whatever he's running around trying to do.
It's mad, basically, and while the platforming mechanism isn't exactly bursting with originality (deadly drips in caves? Again?) the game compensates with a steadily escalating sense of cartoon weirdness. Eat fruit, and you refill your health. Eat meat and mushroom clouds erupt from Bonk's head and he goes mental. Eat a really big piece of meat and he starts breathing fire. Headbutt a flower and it turns into a giant black-and-yellow negative image for no apparent reason.
It may not be the best example of its genre on the VC, and serious platforming historians really need to exhaust all the Mario titles before thinking of downloading this, but Bonk is certainly good for a few giggles.
Chew Man Fu
Wii Points: 600
This guy, Chew Man Fu, has stolen all the Chinese food in the world. You've got to get it back, and you do this by rolling coloured balls around mazes, and putting them on matching tiles on the floor. And you'll be opposed along the way by woodland creatures. Uh-huh. Makes perfect sense, right?
Admittedly, this is a game that hails your victories with such timeless praise as "Chew's hatchetmen are cutthroat killers but they can't dance like you", so normality is a relative concept.
It's simple, it's addictive and it looks absolutely lovely - stuffed full of big, bold sprites and some convincing ball physics. Rolling the balls is the smart way to get them around corners and into the right place, but a well-placed kick can also send them hurtling into enemies - and then bouncing back into your face if you're not careful.
Cute, quirky and instantly accessible, this is well worth a punt for puzzle fans.
Wii Points: 600
It's hard to believe that this curious RPG came out in 1989, so firmly is it rooted in the grand old dungeon crawls of the text adventure era. Combining traditional hack and slash exploration with a rudimentary 3D maze, it looked fairly archaic back when it was released - you don't even see your attacks, just the enemy flashing in front of you - but somehow it seems to have aged rather well. Or, at least, what appeared clunky back then now feels quite charming.
There's a certain sense of purity to the single-minded focus on killing monsters, collecting weapons and gold, and finding the key that will allow you to move on to the next dungeon. You can't even die - defeat simply sends you back to the start of the maze, your gold taken but your experience and level saved.
The "double" part of the equation means that you can play alongside a friend in split-screen, which hardly makes much difference in such a simple game, but there's a definite communal enjoyment to be had if you can find someone similarly inclined.
Strictly for the old school, and people who know that Zork isn't a monster from Doctor Who, I'm quietly seduced by this weird little relic. It's not really worth the asking price, when compared to what else is on offer, but then it's hard to hold Nintendo's price policy against such a quirky little underdog.