Blackthorne DOS review

Well, like I promised last time, today’s review is from a GOOD action PC game and it’s also one of the first games produced by a famous game developer. I’m talking about Blackthorne.

Blackthorne (AKA Blackhawk in Europe) is an action/platform game developed by Blizzard and published by Interplay. It was originally released in 1994 for DOS and SNES/Super Nintendo. It was ported the next year for the SEGA 32X and the following year for Macintosh and the PC-98. It was re-released in 2003 for the Game Boy Advance and in 2013 for Windows.

But as always, let’s look at the covers first:

26863-blackthorne-dos-front-coverWow! With famous comic book artist Jim Lee responsible for this cover art, Blizzard wasn’t pulling any punches when promoting the game. It features our protagonist, armed with a shotgun, posing as the badass he is. With an equal badass title logo, this would be one of the best covers I’ve ever seen, if it wasn’t for the lack of background. Although I kind of like the red colour on our protagonist.

28145-blackthorne-dos-otherAnd yes, this is the type of cover I would like for the gamebox (this is the jewel case cover). Featuring a proper background and even one the enemies you face on the game behind the protagonist. Although some might say that this looks more like a comic book cover than a computer game cover, I think I prefer this one.

And apparently I wasn’t the only one to think so, because almost every other cover had the coloured art version, like this one:

228230-blackthorne-snes-front-coverYes, this is the full cover art and it’s probably the reason why the SNES/Super Nintendo version is the most famous version of the game.

But for the Game Boy Advance re-release, another cover by a different artist was used:

273340-blackthorne-game-boy-advance-front-coverIt’s not bad and the lines look better, but as far as content go, it’s no different than the original cover. They should have used the back cover instead:

273341-blackthorne-game-boy-advance-back-coverNow this look badass! And featuring one of the reasons why this game is famous: the not-looking back shot! Not very practical, but it does look awesome!

But enough talking about the covers and let’s boot this sucker:

In the title screen, you have the badass logo featured in the covers and the traditional options menu, plus a Practice level which is basically a tutorial to learn all the necessary moves needed to play the game and if you select New Game, you’re treated to the game’s intro.

The intro, despite being somewhat small, explains everything you need to know about the backstory: in the world of Tuul, the evil Ka’dra’suul (who look a lot like the orcs from the Warcraft series) led by Sarlac, wage war on the human-like Androthi (again, just like in Warcraft). But as the Ka’dra’suul are raiding Androth’s royal castle, King Vlaros asks the court wizard, Galadril, to sent his infant son Kyle to Earth. But 20 years later while hitchhiking, the now adult Kyle (calling himself Blackthorne) is sent back to Tuul, where he must avenge his father, rescue his people and defeat the evil Sarlac armed only with his boomstick. And if you wish to know more, the manual expands upon the backstory and reveals more about the protagonist.

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Like I said before, you start the game armed only with a shotgun (with infinite ammo), but you can pick up other items like bombs, potions, keys, etc. from enemies or other Androthi you encounter throughout the levels. You can also upgrade your shotgun and raise your health bar in some specific levels. You go through 17 levels divided in 4 areas. In each level, you need to get keys, bombs and other items to open doors and barriers in order to progress to the next level, beating all kinds of enemies and avoiding traps along the way. But everytime you start a new level, you lose all the items you gathered in the previous level (meaning you have to get them all over again) but at least your health bar is recharged back to full.

The combat system is a bit more strategic than most action games. You can dodge attacks simply by pressing yourself against the background (you’ll notice this as Blackthorne gets darker), but your enemies can also do the same. So basically, most combat revolves around dodging attacks until you get an opening to attack. Patience and quick reflexes are the key to victory. You can also run past most enemies but some of them carry items necessary to solve the environmental puzzles. And the enemies get progressively harder and harder, but at least your shotgun and your health bar get upgraded throughout the game.

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Killing an enemy.

And the difficulty also grows exponentially as you progress, but I only found the game  starting to get hard from the 2nd area forward. Luckily apart from the upgrades, you also have infinite lives, so you can try again and again, although everytime you die, you need to restart the level all over again (which can be a drag if you die near the end of a level).

But the gem in the crown is the mix of action and platforming which is very reminiscent from other titles like Prince of Persia, Another World or Flashback. It’s very fluid and fast-paced (but perhaps not as much as the titles I mentioned), but then the combat sections slow that fluidity to a halt (although an experienced player can combine the running and the dodging with the back shot to keep it somewhat fluid). Yes, Kyle can use a back shot by stretching his arm backwards, without looking or aiming. Very useful (and badass looking) when you’re in the middle of two enemies but not very realistic.

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Another great aspect of the game are its graphics: all the levels are very detailed and beautiful, with a fantastic color palette, from the backgrounds to the gothic aesthetic in the last area. And the animation is equally superb, especially during the cutscenes and Kyle’s idle animations (which contribute to the overall atmosphere of the game). Despite the DOS version having a small resolution, the artstyle is top-notch and it doesn’t shy away from some light gore, like blood and exposed wounds.

The level design is very well made and apart from some later levels, you won’t need maps to figure your way around them. Although you might have trouble in some screens figuring out where you can climb up to an upper screen. Although the levels aren’t too big (although you might have to take some long routes in the later levels), the game itself has quite a proper length, mostly due to the puzzles and figuring out where all the items are (and some hidden areas here and there).

Also there is a good variety of enemies from the aforementioned Ka’dra’suul (that come in different colors and respective ranks of difficulty) to other beasts. But I wish the game had boss fights at the end of the last level of each area, apart from the final boss, that is. In fact, when you watch the cutscenes, you might get convicted of the contrary.

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For such an hardcore action game, you might expect an hard-rock soundtrack, right? Well, the soundtrack is actually a bit subdued in contrast with the action on screen. The initial levels have some upbeat themes but as you progress through the game, the music gets more ominous and nerving, but each theme suits its level quite well. I actually found the music a bit relaxing and not a bit distracting. It contributes a lot to the game’s atmosphere. And the sound effects are equally good (especially some enemies’ grunts).

And like I said in past reviews featuring action games, the controls are probably the most important feature for such games and Blackthorne has very responsive keyboard controls. But here lies the game’s biggest flaw: both the original DOS version and the re-released version aren’t compatible with any joystick or gamepad, especially if you’re playing in a native DOS computer. It’s technically possible to remap the keyboard controls with a gamepad if you’re using Dosbox, but I couldn’t do it with the re-release version that comes bundled with Dosbox.

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I love the color palette used here.

So, in conclusion, Blackthorne is probably one of the best action/platform games ever made for the PC, despite being eclipsed by other classic titles in the same genre (like the aforementioned Prince of Persia or Flashback). Still, it’s a very solid game with great controls, gameplay (albeit only through keyboard), graphics and animation. Needless to say that I recommend it for any action game fan!

I haven’t played any of the console versions but I do know that the SNES/Super Nintendo version is probably the most famous one (mostly due to the fact that you can play it using a gamepad!), although the gore is censored. But the Sega 32X version might be the definite version due to its superior graphics and an extra area with 4 more levels. But I did play the Mac version which has a bigger resolution and better graphics than the DOS version and a very similar gameplay.

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The Game Over screen, but only if you choose to give up.

I’m sure you’re already searching through digital stores for this game, but what if I tell you that it’s completely free? That’s right! In 2013, Blizzard re-released an updated version bundled with Dosbox at Battle.net free of charge! What are you waiting for? Go and get it!

And that was the review. Whew, that was a lengthy one! But I did promise to review a proper action title. So I hope you don’t mind if for the next review, I choose a game from a totally different genre. And it’s one of my personal favorites too. Until then, practice your no-scope back shot and keep on playing!

Iron Man and X-O Manowar in Heavy Metal DOS review

The culmination of 10 years of movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has finally arrived at the cinemas with Avengers: Infinity War. And to celebrate such occasion, let’s take a look at the only game released for PC featuring the Avenger that started the MCU: Iron Man (and some other character from Valiant Comics)! I’m talking about Iron Man and X-O Manowar in Heavy Metal.

And yes, I know that Capcom made two games based on The Infinity Gauntlet comic (which inspired the Infinity War movie): Marvel Super Heroes for Arcade and Marvel Super Heroes in War of the Gems for the SNES/Super Nintendo. But those games were never released on the PC, so they won’t be featured here at Retro Freak Reviews (but they’re awesome BTW!).

Iron Man and X-O Manowar in Heavy Metal (what’s with Marvel-licensed games and long titles?!) is an action game developed by Realtime Associates and published by Acclaim. It was originally released in 1996 for DOS, Game Boy, Game Gear, Playstation and Saturn.

Due to the success of the MCU, everybody and their dog knows who Iron Man is, but unless you’re a big Valiant Comics fan, you might not know who X-O Manowar is. He’s basically an ancient viking who was abducted by aliens, got his hands on an experimental alien armor (called X-O), used it to come back to Earth, but due to time dilation, he came back to modern times. So he became a reluctant superhero while fighting aliens and other supervillains. I love you Tony, but a viking wearing an alien armor it’s just about as cool as it gets.

But before looking at the game, let’s look at the cover:

112457-iron-man-x-o-manowar-in-heavy-metal-dos-front-coverThis cover looks a bit weird in my opinion. Here we have Iron Man and X-O Manowar looking menacing in a typical superhero pose, but what makes the image weird is the background perspective. It looks like both heroes are standing on the side of a building with two other characters behind them (and apparently also behind the glass window where they’re standing on). But then I noticed that the heroes are actually flying towards the two female characters and the background is actually the reflection of said window (still a very confusing perspective).

And the back cover adds to the confusion, even though it makes more sense:

112458-iron-man-x-o-manowar-in-heavy-metal-dos-back-coverIn here, it looks like the females switched places with the heroes and are now standing in front of a window (which is reflecting the heroes this time). The perspective in this image is a lot better than in the other image, that’s for sure. The two females pictured above are Mistress Crescendo from Vaillant and Titania from Marvel. Mistress Crescendo is one of the main villains in the game, which justifies her presence here but Titania isn’t (she only appears once as a boss), although one might assume that she’s a main villain, based on this image alone.

But as always, it’s time to boot this sucker:

I found the intro very lacklustre (although rocking a hell of a theme music) but to find out the backstory, one has to read the manual, which has a rather good comic to explain all of it: Mistress Crescendo and Baron Zemo (not a traditional Iron Man villain by the way) joined forces to try and reform the Cosmic Cube (imagine a Macguffin and a Deus-Ex Machina combined into one) with the goal of using it to take over, not the world, but TWO worlds instead (Marvel and Vaillant). A pretty standard backstory for a superhero game, but it serves the game adequately.

A small disclaimer: I have only played the single-player mode. I have no idea how’s the co-op mode.

You choose between Iron Man or X-O Manowar and have to go through several levels and face down several villains from both comic universes. You go through 7 areas divided in about 3 levels for each area with most of them with a boss (always a supervillain from the comics) at the end of each level. Both heroes control more or less the same; with a melee attack (two for Iron Man and a energy sword attack for X-O), a range attack, a recharge attack that spends one weapon bar and temporary flight (by pressing jump twice). Although both characters move at the same speed, X-O has a little more trouble dodging attacks because he’s bigger (but he can block attacks).

553655-iron-man-x-o-manowar-in-heavy-metal-dos-screenshot-choosing

“I AM IRON MAN!”

Surprisingly, the melee attacks are more powerful than the range attacks, even after fully upgrading them. But at full power, you can even get a seeking attack that automatically targets the nearest enemy, which can be very useful. However, if you lose a life, you’ll also lose one upgrade. The armor bar (which is basically the life bar) doesn’t replenishes between levels, but at least, you keep any upgrades you caught previously. There’s also boost upgrades that extends the flight period, which can be used to reach high platforms or simply fly above dangerous areas (or enemies).

And although you can only move in four directions, there’s a background plane from which enemies can came from but luckily both heroes have an attack that targets specifically the background. You can even blow up background objects to get upgrades and health items.

And speaking about the levels, they’re probably the best part of the game. With great graphics, good design (although the later levels can be a bit labyrinthic), good variation of enemies and no time limits (except for one awful boss battle). And although the game’s in 2D, there’s a pseudo 3D perspective as you move along and even a zoom effect during the boss battles (although it tends to pixelate the bigger enemies when zooming in). The levels can be a bit small, but there are so many of them, that the game is quite lengthy.

553657-iron-man-x-o-manowar-in-heavy-metal-dos-screenshot-confronting

And the boss battles are in their vast majority great. With challenging and not too frustrating bosses (except for the one I mentioned before).

But unfortunately there’s also some drawbacks: the sound effects are okay and the soundtrack is actually quite good (for a game titled Heavy Metal), but the music themes are short and on a continuous loop, which can become a bit grating after awhile. But for me the worst part are the controls (which are both bad, whether you’re using a keyboard or gamepad, although I recommend the latter) and the animation, which is too slow for most of the game. It only speeds up when the screen’s empty. And for such a fast-paced action game, these two elements’ quality should be above all else.

And it’s due to these two elements that Heavy Metal is one of the hardest action games I ever played on a PC. Bad controls and slow gameplay make this game unnecessarily tough, even in the easiest setting.

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Playing with X-O Manowar

So in conclusion, I don’t consider Heavy Metal a terrible game, even with its drawbacks. Yes, the controls could be better and the animation more fluid, but the graphics and level design are good. If you’re a comics fan (especially of these  two characters), you might want to give it a shot, but there are better action games out there.

I haven’t played any other versions, but the Playstation version seems faster and more fluid in comparison with the DOS version. And apparently there’s also an entire mini-series that tells the story of the game (probably where the comic in the manual comes from), but I also haven’t read it.

So, are you excited to see Avengers: Infinity War? I know I am! And I know these two reviews weren’t very positive, but the next review is from an action title that was requested a few months ago by a watcher from my Twitch channel. And I promise it’s a much better game than these two last. Until then, keep on playing!

Expendable for PC review

DISCLAIMER: I’ve received a copy of this game through my Steam Curator page, so I won’t blame anyone if this review is taken with a pinch of salt. However, I promise to be as objective as possible.

There are some games that usually pass beneath the radar (or I’ve never heard of), but that doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve to be featured here on Retro Freak Reviews (and I’m sure you’ve read the disclaimer above). Anyway, today’s feature is Expendable.

Expendable (AKA Millenium Soldier: Expendable in some European countries) is a shoot’em up/action game made by Rage Software and originally released in 1998 for Windows and in 1999 for Dreamcast. It was ported the following year for Playstation and in 2016, it was re-released for Windows and Macintosh in GOG.com and in 2018, in Steam (but only the Windows version).

But, as always, let’s look at covers first:

407594-millennium-soldier-expendable-windows-front-coverThis is the PC cover featuring a bald soldier guy (with a wicked tattoo on the back of the head) standing with a weapon on his hand in front of a group of aliens. It’s not a bad cover and it shows exactly the type of game it is.

But the former wasn’t the only PC cover in existence:

191467-millennium-soldier-expendable-windows-front-coverI won’t deny that the X logo is cool and all that, but honestly, I hate covers just featuring logos or minimal design. It’s  not only impossible to tell the type of game it is, but in my opinion, logo covers are just lazy!

However, the console versions had their own cover:

5998-millennium-soldier-expendable-playstation-front-coverWell, it might not be as stylistic as the PC covers, but it’s without a doubt, more action-packed. It became the most famous cover of the game and it’s easy to see why and I’m kind of torn between this one and the original PC cover.

Anyway, it’s time to boot this sucker and mow down waves of aliens:

And as funny as the intro is, it doesn’t explain the backstory at all. But according to the manual, in the far future, mankind has taken to the stars and colonised several planets, but an hostile alien race started to attack and conquer said colonies. So, an army of clones is created and sent to liberate the colonies from the aliens. With one clone soldier at a time, apparently (or two, if you’re playing with a friend). So, everytime you lose a life, you don’t actually lose it, one of the clones dies and it’s substituted by another, hence the title (I think there would be more sense to just send all them at once or in large groups like, oh I don’t know, AN ACTUAL ARMY?!)

So around 15 levels (without counting the bonus levels), you go around several planets (depicted in the nice waiting screens), collecting several weapons and power-ups and shooting aliens in the face (and in other parts too) until they’re defeated. And that’s about everything you need to know about the game’s backstory. Then again, it’s a run and gun action style game, there isn’t much else needed. And that’s where the problems begin: from the generic looking clones and the equally generic looking aliens (that most of the time, look more like robots) to the level design (that’s not as generic as one would expect, especially in the later levels).

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But although all the weapons are cool (except for the grenade launcher), you can only carry three at a time, and the moment a particular weapon’s ammo ends , it reverts back to your initial weapon (that has infinite ammo but it’s also pretty week). But for me, there are two unforgivable sins that a game of this particular genre should avoid: first, it doesn’t matter how many extra weapons or power-ups you were able to collect, it’ll always revert back to the initial weapon at the beginning of each level without any power-ups; and second, the controls aren’t very good (which is essential in any action game). It doesn’t matter if you’re playing with a gamepad, a joystick or the keyboard; the controls will get from over-sensitive to non-responsive in a matter of seconds (really awful if it occurs during a boss battle). The best control combination is using a mouse along with a WASD keyboard scheme (like in a modern FPS), but it’s still far from perfect.

However, the game still has a few good points. Like I said before, the level design isn’t that bad, with some colors here and there and lot’s of secret areas to discover, the UI ingame is quite helpful, with the clone’s face in the corner changing to a skull as you lose health; the waiting screens look really nice, the weapons are almost all good, the sound effects (especially the explosions) are great and some of the bosses’ designs and battles are actually fun and challenging. The little humor there is, it’s actually funny and if there was more of it, the game might have stood out more instead of looking so generic and bland. The animation is okay as far as later-90s 3D games go, but the soundtrack is almost non-existent. And as far I liked the level design, the fixed camera sometimes changes perspective without notice, which can be a bit disorienting.

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In overall, I consider Expendable a pretty average game and if you’re a fan of run-and-gun style shoot’em ups; like Contra, Cannon Fodder or Midnight Resistance, you might want to give it a shot but, otherwise, I can’t really recommend it. Like I said before, it’s too generic and bland. If it had better controls and more humor throughout the game, Rage could have a serious spiritual successor to Contra on their hands.

I haven’t played any of the console versions, so I can’t really compare them with the PC version. You can buy the PC version here at GOG.com or here at Steam. Around 2012, a port of the Dreamcast version called Expendable: Rearmed was released for Android, but it’s no longer available on Google Play.

I know this was a somewhat short review, but then again, there isn’t much to say about this game. But next time, I promise to avenge this with a better and bigger review. Until then, keep on shooting and playing.