Reviewing… Story of Thor (Sega Mega Drive)

story-of-thor-title

I actually meant to get started on these reviews a while ago… better late than never!

My copy of Story of Thor and I go way back to 1994, when I was lucky enough to be given it for Christmas. I’d read the reviews from Sega-stalwart Sega Megazone and was just starting to get into anime (this interest would be fully realised as Robotech replayed over the summer holidays on Agro’s Cartoon Connection and when I saw 3×3 Eyes Part 2 at a friend’s place a few months later), so it seemed like a good combination. Ancient, and by extension Yuzo Koshiro (who rocked my gaming world with Streets of Rage 2 the year previous), helmed the game’s design and it gave me a chance to play a Zelda-like adventure game without having to swallow my pride and invest in a SNES (this would come 18 months later, but that’s another story). These are all very important points to a 12 year old boy you understand, so it’s important to irrationally preface this review accordingly.

I adored the game back in the day – it was an amazing feat for the humble Mega Drive and a fun game in its own right. When I went back to play it recently (“recently” being last year or the year before), I was still confident that the game would hold up well. Turns out I was right.

Visually I still think it’s fantastic – the Mega Drive’s colour palette is used sensibly (as it needs to be – only 64 of those colours can be on-screen simultaneously [or 183 in shadow/highlight mode - thanks Wikipedia]), sprites are large and well-animated (despite later enemies simply being palette-swaps) and there’s plenty of variety in the scenery. As a bonus, the game features a little sprite scaling when you fall down holes or gaping chasms. It’s all typical of Japanese game aesthetics of the era – clean, well-defined and charming with great attention to detail.

The fanboy wants to decry it the audio as an example of technical mastery for the system, and to a degree it is. The problem is that it hasn’t necessarily aged too well – Koshiro’s deft use of the Mega Drive’s audio chipset for the music is actually very good – it’s the garbled sampled audio that lets it down. Back when I was playing this on an old 51cm TV in my bedroom (complete with RF input and 80s faux-wood panelling contact over the MDF), I actually used to run the Mega Drive through my mini HiFi stereo and remember being impressed by the use of the stereo channels to simulate a surround-sound effect with the waterfalls in the palace. The effect’s still prolific, but the sample noise is a little rough on ears now. It was certainly ambitious, and was by no means unpleasant; today, it’s just a bit rough.

Another peculiarity is with the cartridge’s hardware itself and how it interacts with the Mega Drive. I normally run my Mega Drive games in 60hz, but the PAL Story of Thor cart is a bit of an anomaly with the way it handles the different refresh rates. When booted in 60hz it gives the usual region protection error, which isn’t uncommon – why it’s interesting is that when you try the usual trick to get around it (boot in 50hz, then swap to 60hz), the game slows to a halt and the image rolls. The only other games where I’ve seen the same thing happen are Streets of Rage 1 and 2, both of which also happen to be games by Ancient and involve Yuzo Koshiro. My only theory is that Koshiro is using either some unique hardware in the cart (I haven’t popped the cart open to have a look), or the oscillator that provides the refresh rate is tied to the way the game handles video timing, the Z80 audio CPU or other programmable variables. On the upside though, the PAL version of the game is surprisingly well-optimised for PAL TVs, including stretching the image so that it virtually covers the entire screen. I didn’t take notice of this back in the day (it wasn’t until the Saturn era that I became aware of PAL optimisation of games and the joys of 60hz), but it’s a nice touch looking back at it now.

It didn’t take me too long to plough through the game – my memory was surprisingly good and the game really isn’t too tough. There’s no excess padding with enough optional treasure hunting to get the balance just right (though I still didn’t manage to find all the hidden gems this time around!). I think it took up maybe… 5 or 6 hours? That’s a good time frame for me these days, as I’m time-poor given the realities of life typical of someone my age. Playing through games that last over 60 hours is a long slog when I only have a couple of hours each week (if that) to get in some gaming, so it meant Story of Thor was the perfect length to knock out in a couple of weekends.

I won’t assign a score for this one (or any other reviews for that matter), as I don’t think it’s necessary. What’s more important is the experience, and this one still delivers. The great news is that if you missed it back in the day, it’s available via the Wii’s Virtual Console for a cheap download, and M2′s work on the emulation on the Wii is amazing. It’s also on the Sega Mega Drive Collection (or Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for those in North America) on the PS3 and XB360, but the emulation isn’t anywhere near as precise as M2′s. Still, if that’s all you have access to, it’s worth a go. You even get a trophy/achievement for completing the first dungeon :)

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Streets of Rage Remake hits v5.0 Final!

BomberGames’ epic Streets of Rage Remake project hit v5.0 Final earlier this month!

This is an amazing feat, and the game is work of art. As a huge fan of the Streets of Rage series, having spent countless hours playing through the originals (especially through SoR2 on Mania level!), this game is a masterful tribute to the series, combining new characters, accumulated specials, tweaks, remixes of old levels, and plays perfectly, just like on the Mega Drive.

All the details are on their announcement page – grab it and enjoy it (currently available for Windows/PC). The only way it could be better is if it was on PSN and XBLA and distributed by Sega, because the authors deserve wide exposure of this project and remuneration for their efforts. In turn, the game demands being played on a big screen on a console :)

Thanks to elvis over at Aussie Arcade for the heads-up!

Enjoy!

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Unofficial piano nocturne – themes from Streets of Rage or Street Fighter on the piano

A while ago I grabbed the piece of awesome that is Sega Piano Nocturne – as the world’s worst piano player despite loving the instrument dearly, I absolutely loved hearing a lot of my favourite Sega tracks rolled into the piano and bring out some really interesting melodies from some great tunes. I think there should be more piano renditions of classic chiptunes and game themes, I absolute love a good arranged version of a classic song from a game. Because I’m a tragic nerd :D

Anywho, after checking out some footage of Yuzo Koshiro doing his thing in a Tokyo night club, I did the usual click-click-click-click YouTube thing you normally do to see what other Streets of Rage stuff was on there, and I stumbled across the following – it’s from the third stage in Streets of Rage 2:

Awesome, huh? The same user (Yuzoboy) has an upload playing the ending theme to Streets of Rage 2 which was really cool… but again, YouTube/Web2.0 strikes again, and I found the following interpretation of the ending theme from Streets of Rage 2:

This one’s from mymorningjackets, and is an amazing, bittersweet piece of awesome, lead by piano with a bit of classical guitar thrown in for good measure. There are also a couple of other great interpretations in his list, so might have to come back to him in a later post after I’ve had a chance to check out his blog.

So, with all things “street” on my mind, I started seeing results for Street Fighter 2 gear on the piano! Here are a handful of videos I found that I thought were worth a look into!

First up we have Ken’s theme from SF2 – this one’s a pretty “standard” interpretation of the song without too much embellishment, but you know what? It’s still played beautifully and with more skill than I can ever dream of having when I sit down at my piano :D Plus, given how awesome Ken is (yes, I’m a Ken scrub!), it’s all good :)

The day my mate McAdam and I accidentally unlocked the vocal theme of Sakura’s song (in Japanese at that!) on the PAL version of Super Puzzle Fighter 2 Turbo on the Saturn was a glorious day, because she has such an amazing theme song (I got goosebumps playing through Sakura’s story in SF4 with her theme recurring throughout!), and this one’s a great version of her theme. Nothing’s embellished, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Remember, Sakura is awesome. Very important fact.

If Ryu’s theme doesn’t go down in the history of awesome of chiptunage, there’s something wrong with the world. If need be we can get rid of Sephiroth’s theme, as that’s starting to annoy me, but that’s because I’m an irrational fan of Phantasy Star and have yet to play through a Final Fantasy game based purely on principle. The exception to this is Final Fantasy III on the DS, which I really enjoyed (thanks Hamez!), and Final Fantasy IX always looked fun, as did FFVI. Anywho, enough of that – Rastapulse is responsible for the above, and I’ll be referencing him again too, as his interpretation of Ryu’s theme is brilliant. There’s a deliberate slowing of the tempo and some great phrasing in there – very expressive, and the little intro/outro he’s added is cool!

Fun fact – I used the melody of Cammy’s theme in an early megamix I made when I was first learning how to program stuff in a MIDI-sequencer. It was actually completely rubbish, but good fun at the time. MIDI sequencing programs confuse me now, I was quite happy with Evolution MIDI back in the day, it was choice. Now, if I was able to program something akin to the above on the aforementioned program, I would have been much more proud of myself. Akin to the Ryu theme that Rastapulse was responsible for above, this one’s slowed the tempo and emphasised the melody really nicely – again, great phrasing and execution. I haven’t checked out the rest of the material in his YouTube channel yet, so might have to get onto that later.

Last one – Guile’s theme, and I left this until last as it has elements from each of the styles I’ve linked to, with some of it emphasising 1:1 phrasing compared to the original with lotsa piano-passion, and then there are other moments where the melody’s been played around with a bit of artistic license and takes on the languishing character of the themes Rastapulse did above with just the right amount of melodrama to make things interesting.

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Raving to Yuzo Koshiro in a Tokyo club

A friend posted a link to this in a discussion we were having via a message board online, and since I’d never heard of this being possible, thought it deserves some linkage:

For those not in the know, Yuzo Koshiro is an absolute genius when it comes to getting the Mega Drive’s Yamaha YM2612 chip to do some amazing stuff (though to be honest, Koshiro had a habit of making the entire chipset do some amazing stuff). The music for Streets of Rage 2 is probably my favourite of his work, though big ups should go to the amazing work he did creating a symphony out of the Mega Drive for Story of Thor, and for some amazing early work on Revenge of Shinobi.

I always thought back when I was younger that the quality of the audio in Streets of Rage 2 demanded more attention. Thanks to the magic of YouTube, it’s nice to see it was a success :D

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