Category Archives: Saturn Reviews

Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus Review

SalamanderSalamander Deluxe Pack Plus (Available on PlayStation, and SEGA Saturn)
ESRB Rating: N/A
Number of Players: 1 to 2
Genre: Shoot ‘em Up
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Konami
Release Date: June 19th, 1997 (Sat), July 6th, 1997 (PS1)

Parent Talk: Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus is a shmup collection featuring three fantastic shooters from the mid-eighties to mid-nineties.  These games feature some funky graphics like 2D animated brains with arms, and bizarre creations like that.  I used to play this series when I was but a youngster and I turned out just fine (Editor’s note: that’s debatable).

Plays Like: Have you ever played Gradius, well then you know what to expect here.  You get in the cockpit of the Vic Viper and destroy absolutely everything in your path.  “Simple” as that.

Review Basis: Having owned this Saturn gem for many years, I’ve completed all three games in the collection many times over.  These are true arcade classics.

If there’s one shmup collection I simply had to own, it was the Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus.  The ‘Plus’ is because unlike the other Deluxe Packs Konami released on the Saturn and PS1 during the mid-nineties, this collection features three games instead of two.  These are some of the very best shooters ever released, and much like Gradius, have stood the test of time perfectly.   

The Great:

Salamander – Coming hot off the heels of Gradius, Konami wanted a spin-off series that featured a more organic setting, and thus Salamander was born.  You still took control of the Vic Viper, but here a second player could join the fray in the Road British Space Destroyer (also called Lord British).  Gone was Gradius’ power-up meter, meaning players could get power-ups in the form of individual icons.  A shield would have its own icon, options another, and so on.  Speaking of shields, one of the game’s biggest issues is with the shield power-up because it only protects one side of the ship and considering how rare the power-up is, you’re almost never protected on both sides.  Salamander also introduced the combination of horizontal and vertical levels, which many other Konami shooters would follow.

Life Force – If you’ve heard the name before, odds are it’s because of the NES classic.  Well sorry to disappoint you, but this is actually a port of the arcade version of the game.  That means it’s about a thousand times faster than the NES version and significantly harder.  As a matter of fact the NES game isn’t related to this one at all.  It combined levels from Salamander and the arcade version of Life Force so in essence it’s basically its own game.  To get back on track, Life Force is essentially a palette swap of Salamander.  It’s basically the exact same game except everything looks even more organic.  The story is that you’re inside some giant alien beast, trying to kill it from the inside out before it destroys planet Gradius.  The gameplay is radically different though because it features the Gradius power meter, meaning you collect power orbs and trigger the special you want to use.

Salamander 2 – The real prize in this collection is this bad boy right here.  Having never been released outside Japan, Salamander 2 features the same gameplay from the first game, but fixes one of that game’s biggest issues, the shield power-up.  Here, whenever you collect a shield power-up the Vic Viper gets a force field that covers the entire ship.  This makes things are more manageable.  Many enemies from the Gradius series are featured as well, and overall the game looks absolutely gorgeous for its 1996 release date.

The Good:

+ All three games feature spot-on controls.  If you die, it’s because you did something wrong, not because of input lag.

+ Each game has a difficulty setting, but even playing on Saturn Easy mode I was barely able to make it past the third level of the first two games.

+ This collection features an incredible amount of fantastic tunes.  I love how each game has a sound test mode, making the songs super easy to rip onto your MP3 player.  It might sound nerdy, but damn are these catchy songs.  Konami were the kings of 8-bit music, and it shows when you can listen to these classic tracks over twenty years later and still enjoy them.

+ Visually the older two games look nice and crisp, as they should because they’re arcade perfect.  Salamander 2, while also arcade perfect, looks significantly better than the other games in the collection, for obvious reasons.  It’s a newer game, having been released in 1996, and features extremely detailed sprite-world and even polygons!  My goodness, the future is now!!!

The So-So:

+/- Each of the three games have only six stages, and two of the games are virtual carbon copies of each other.  That might appear skimpy, but these games will devour your soul so any more than six stages and you’d never make it out with your controller and TV intact.

The Ugly:

Having not played any of these games for a number of years now, capturing footage for the video review was agonizing.  These games are absolutely brutal!  The first two include NO CONTINUES!  That’s right ladies and gentlemen, even your beloved Konami code grants you squat.  Thankfully Salamander 2 offers players unlimited continues, but that’s the only one.  I guess that’s how you know these are all arcade perfect titles as the original arcade games didn’t offer continues in the single player mode, and only two continues in the multiplayer mode, which also holds true here as well.  Ouch!  Needless to say, this is a game for the most hardcore shooting fans.

The Lowdown:

Your enjoyment with this game will be based purely on your love of this series.  If you’re a hardcore fan, you’ll think this is the ultimate collection.  If you never really thought the series deserved all the attention it got, then obviously this isn’t for you.  For someone like me it’s a classic, and one of the must-have titles to purchase on your SEGA Saturn or your imported PS1.  Be warned though, this isn’t a cheap game, but for old-school arcade fans, it’s worth every single penny.

Final Score: 8.5/10

Shining Force III Review

Shining Force IIIShining Force III (Available exclusively on SEGA Saturn)
ESRB Rating: T
Number of Players: 1
Genre: Tactical RPG
Publisher: SEGA
Developer: Sonic Software Planning and Camelot Software
Release Date: May 31st, 1998

Parent Talk: The ESRB rates Shining Force III T for teen because of mild animated violence, and mild language. Much like the other entries in the Shining Force, and Fire Emblem series, parents can expect cartoony animated violence, and mature subject matter with mild language. If this game were rated today I’m fairly confident it would earn an E10+ rating since the graphics aren’t realistic and are so primitive by today’s standards.

Plays Like: If you’ve ever played a tactical RPG you know what to expect. Story progression takes place on a 3D field with sprite-based characters. You can visit towns, talk to countless NPCs and purchase goodies from item shops. Battles take place on a dedicated battle map, whereby both enemy and player units take turns moving on a grid. Depending on where in the environment you place your units, their combat effectiveness increases or decreases. Certain units are also stronger than others, giving way to lots of strategy.

Review Basis: I played and finished Shining Force III back in 1998, and recently played through almost half the game to brush myself up on the gameplay mechanics, graphics, and overall presentation.

One of the biggest crimes SEGA of America committed back in the late nineties was releasing only one part of the Shining Force III saga. For those that don’t know, the game is broken down into three different scenarios. In Japan, those that purchased all three could send in their proof of purchase to SEGA and claim the much-coveted Premium disc which included a wide assortment of bonus goodies. So what made the three scenarios so special? It was the way they connected to one another. Save a character in scenario one, he might come back in scenario two or three to help save you when you least expect it. Even the story would be slightly altered based on the actions you performed in each of the different scenarios. This was fairly mind-blowing stuff back in 1998! Sadly North Americans and Europeans would only be teased as both scenario two and three never made it outside Japan. As such, what you’re left with is essentially only a third of the overall experience, but damn what a third.

The Great:

The world of Shining Force III is broken down into several main factions. There’s the Destonian Empire, the Republic of Aspinia, which broke free of Emperor Domaric’s rule, and the neutral region of Saraband. You take on the role of Synbios, a young Lord in the Republic. The Republic’s king, Benetram is meeting with Emperor Domaric in Saraband, in hopes of establishing permanent peace treaties between the Empire and the Republic. Things go awry when mysterious masked monks appear in Saraband, and explosions break out in the city. While investigating the explosions Synbios and his entourage are attacked by the mysterious monks. Making their way back to their camp, they see a group of monks with King Benetram, and he’s kidnapping Emperor Domaric. All is clearly not as it seems as when Synbios makes his way back to camp King Benetram is seated on his throne and has been there for a while. So who kidnapped the opposing Emperor and why? With war erupting all around you, a mysterious sect of monks appearing out of nowhere, clearly something sinister is afoot. Only you and your team can save King Benetram and get to the bottom of this.

The story acts as one giant tease because while entertaining and complex on its own, things get even more interesting when you take into account the second and third scenarios. The second scenario deals with this same story, but from the side of the Empire, through the eyes of the Emperor’s youngest son Medion. It’s scenario three that really brings things together, by following the mercenary Julian, who is actually the true hero of Shining Force III. In the first two scenarios he’s a secondary character that joins both Synbios and Medion. The first two scenarios take place roughly at the same time, but the third pushes the story forward and combines the previous two scenarios perfectly. Characters featured in the first two scenarios return in the third, certain choices you make in the first two games unlock different characters that can be recruited in the third. It’s a brilliant system that was never fully realized anywhere outside Japan, and that’s a crime against humanity!

For anyone interested, Julian’s initial motivation was to kill a character named Galm, who he believed killed his father. That might sound somewhat familiar to fans of Shining the Holy Ark, as Julian was actually featured in that game. He was the young child that asked for help locating his missing father. Now if that’s not a cool way of tying the games together, I don’t know what is. It’s just such a shame the entire trilogy of games couldn’t have been released . SEGA fans had to wait almost an entire year with no new releases from November 1998 to September 1999 when the Dreamcast hit. It would have been nice to have gotten at least one more entry in the series during that long span of time.

Shining ForceIII_1The Good:

+ Far less complex than some of its brethren. You don’t have to worry about getting bogged down with countless menus, or thousands of unit stats. Here you simply need to make sure you pit the right unit against an enemy, and position yourself so that you’ve got the greatest defensive and offensive position possible. Simple as that.

+ While the simple interface and gameplay might make you think the game’s a push-over, nothing could be further from the truth. This game can easily kick your ass if you’re not careful. Enemies aren’t dumb, and will automatically attack your units that have the lowest HP, or are the weakest unit based on their type. This means you have to be extremely careful how you position your troops, and the strategy you use to tackle whatever foes lay in your way.

+ Finding secret maps allow you to access areas that not only provide additional enemies to battle, but also a wide assortment of goodies which will make later battles much easier.

+ There’s also great mission variety. Some missions challenge you to defeat all the enemies on the map, others force you to save different characters within a set number or turns, etc. This goes a long way in helping keep battles fresh.

+ The introduction of a friendship system also adds an entirely unique layer of depth to the battles. If two units are positioned beside each other, they will slowly form a bond. At first the units are all allies, but they can become partners, and eventually work their way through the ranks to soul mates. Doing so rewards bonuses in key stats including attack, magic, counter, etc. The catch is that you have to keep these units paired up in order for the bonuses to take affect, which completely changes the dynamic of battles. The downside to this system is that if one unit falls in combat, their friendship ranking is reduced by one level.

+ The soundtrack was composed by Motoi Sakuraba, the famous composer of such hits including the Star Ocean series, the Golden Sun series, and my personal favorite, Shining the Holy Ark. The music is powerful, emotional, and sounds fantastic as each new track fits the tone perfectly. The sound effects are mostly ripped directly from Shining the Holy Ark, which is a good thing as that game was extremely well designed, but some might be a little disappointed by the repeat.

+ Very few would argue that most 32-bit era 3D games haven’t aged too well in the graphics department. It’s true here as well, as the FMV sequences are extremely grainy, 3D environments are mostly made up of low res and low poly count objects, but the sprite-based characters look very nice. This is the one style that hasn’t aged too poorly, all things considered. While in combat the characters are rendered in full 3D, and animate well. You can clearly see and immediately know what’s happening on-screen. The other good news is that there’s almost no loading whatsoever, and the game runs at a fairly constant framerate, which is great.

Shining ForceIII_2The So-So:

+/- Unlike the second iteration in the series, Shining Force III pulls players along with the story, removing any free-roaming areas. That means exploration is limited to the area you’re currently in. This is important to note because once you move on, that area is no longer accessible.

+/- Unlike some other tactical RPGs, there are no permanent deaths, unless you fail to recruit a character before they were killed. This means you can visit a church and revive your fallen comrades. It’s also possible to teleport back to your last visited church, which allows you to restart a battle that wasn’t going in your favor, while retaining the experience gained. This means you can grind levels for all your units at any point, and can be considered both a good and a bad aspect depending on how you decide to play the game.

The Bad:

– The camera system takes a very long time to get used to, and even when you do, it’s still very easy to make a mistake when you’re trying to position your units while in combat. You’ll be constantly pressing the L and R buttons to rotate the camera to get a better look at the action, and it can become a bit annoying after a while. Exploration can also be a bit problematic because of the camera angles, as you might miss where an entrance is, or not notice a secret path.

– The limited voice samples are just awful. The lack of emotion while delivering the dialogue makes Resident Evil sound like it should win an Academy Award.

– Some glitchy sound effects cut the music every now and then for whatever reason. It doesn’t happen often, but is annoying when it does.

The Ugly:

Waiting a lifetime for the three scenarios, and never seeing them appear anywhere else is heartbreaking, especially since the story is so interesting and the gameplay so fresh. What a waste!

Shining ForceIII_3The Lowdown:

Shining Force III holds up remarkably well today. While the graphics may look dated in a lot of ways, the gameplay is still spot-on. I can’t stress this enough, but far too few have played this awesome game, and fewer still ever will. Today (2013) the game fetches insane prices on eBay, depending on the condition. You can spend upwards of $150 or more, which is asking a lot for only one-third the story. If you can spot a copy of the game for under $100 I’d say to pick it up in a heartbeat, and if you’re a huge Saturn fan I’d say it’s worthy of $120 since most of us had to pay $89.99 back in 1998 for our copies. Since this game has never been released elsewhere, the only way to experience it is via the Saturn and I think it’s well worth checking out.

Final Score: 9/10