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Gamebox 2.0: Games of February 2021

As winter batters most of the US along with the ongoing pandemic-related troubles, it’s the perfect time to bunker down and play some video games and we got to check out a bunch of recently released titles for the latest Gamebox 2.0.  We played old and new run and gun platformers with Turrican Flashback and 30xx, a rogue-like shooter inspired by the likes of Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac with TinyShot, got into some wacky turn-based battles with Gem Wizards Tactics and more.

30xx (Zach): Ace and Nina are back for more Mega Man rogue-like action in the sequel to 20xx, 30xx from Batterystaple Games. Based on the title, the game takes place a thousand or so years after 20xx with the Zero-inspired Ace and the X-inspired Nina reawoken to battle new robotic threats. The game takes inspiration from the Mega Man X games and things like dashing, wall climbing, and charging up your weapon should all feel pretty familiar if you played either franchise back in the day. The big difference is that 30xx is rogue-like, so the levels are randomly generated and you’ll be doing runs to try and progress as far as you can before dying, which you will do a lot as the game is pretty brutal as far as difficulty.

Luckily the controls feel tight and you can gradually build up your skills to progress further in each stage, although the rogue-like and randomness of the game won’t let you really learn or adapt to a specific challenge because more than likely that particular element won’t be there next run.  There are different difficulty levels but even the slightly easier mode will be a challenge for even the most experienced Mega Man fan.

The game looks and sounds fantastic, with music that perfectly captures the feel of the classic games it’s inspired by and the levels are all full of incredibly vibrant colors and interesting designs and backgrounds.  Each level features mid-level bosses and the main level boss and, if you manage to survive, you’ll return to your HQ with experience and currency that you can use to buy skills and upgrades.  You can also find shops within levels and there are lots of secondary weapons and skills you can equip that will complement either Ace’s sword or Nina’s blaster.  The game is out now in Early Access on Steam and if you played 20xx or have fond memories of the Mega Man X/Zero games, 30xx is definitely worth checking out and more features will be added as the game evolves.

(Chris): Charge up your blast shots or laser sword, Batterystaple Games is ready to show gamers the world of 30xx. Following the events of the 20xxcyborg warriors Ace and Nina have been left in hypersleep and are bought into action to save the world from a robotic force. But no stage is played the same twice, the 30xx has some new tricks up its selves to keep players guessing the new challenges.  Batterystaple Games adds a new rogue-lite element to keep enemy and level layout randomize, making the for some interesting battles. As Ace and Nina take on the enemies, they will gain new abilities and upgrades to tackle increasing difficulty stages and bosses.

The xx series has been heavily influenced by the Mega-Man X series, capturing the tight platforming controls and tense boss battles. While originally focused on clean, perfect runs, 30xx allows players to repeatedly try new tactics and build up their characters to handle the environment. And this is no simple game to brutal force thru levels. Although the game randomizes a few details, there are tricky jumps to make and hard enemies to clear out. There is a lot of risk and reward to make when trying to rack up exp and currency throughout a level. Sometimes it’s smart to get as much loot on one run to make it easier, but failing to clear a level sends you back with nothing.

A new feature is a co-op mode that lets two players try a run together. Co-op mode follows the same standards as the single-player but throws a few more enemies on screen. If players are close, the camera will follow tightly to show a normal view. But if two players are separate, the camera pans out a big to show where each player is on the level and reveals a lot more pathways than a normal view would have allowed. It is pretty cool to have two players run and gun, creating new approaches and rewarding big rewards.

Batterystaple Games polished and improved a lot of their designs in 30xx. The spirit animations are great and the music hits the right tones to transport gamers to a simpler pixelated mood. The rogue elements aren’t too punishing where the game starts to feel like a big grind. It has a great balance of challenging setups and fun rewards.  The gameplay feels a lot more controlled and offers a ton of replayability to fine-tune Ace and Nina to the player’s specs.

Gem Wizards Tactics (Chris): When a sacred and powerful gem is stolen, three armies rise and clash to rule the lands in Gem Wizards Tactics. Developed by Keith Burgun Games, Gem Wizards Tactics is a colorful entry in turn-based RPG. Inspired by titles like Advance War and Fire Emblem, Gem Wizards Tactics mixes class strategic elements with intricate combat that forces players to quickly adapt to imminent challenges.

Choosing one of the factions, players will command a team of soldiers, warriors, and oddities from a particular kingdom. Each kingdom has a leader that will recruit and build up an army to take the land. At the time of writing, three of the factions were unlocked to play. There is a Potatoes faction, lead by a guardian witch and an assortment of vegetable fighters. There is the Azure Order, led by a knight and has medieval theme troops. And the Business Demons, demonic creatures looking to rule everything.

Combat in Gem Wizards Tactics takes place on a grid panel. Movements and attacks use Action Points that get replenish on every turn. There are several unit classes that prioritize attack, defensive, or support. Some are great at attacking from a distance with ranged abilities, others need to be closer and can affect multiple areas. By collecting gem across the battlefield, units gain abilities that can deal massive damage or create favorable opportunities. Some units can change the terrain to alter the terrain or push enemies out of the way.

While some individual units can carry their own in the battle, the game really shines when setting up and executing the strengths of all the units. Supporting units can easily replenish protections or set traps, defensive tanks can absorb more hit points, and specialize assault units can deal out greater damage. Mixing different abilities and the right timing, players can quickly outmaneuver the enemies to reach objectives.

At the time of writing, there were two main modes to play. Campaign mode follows a particular faction rise to power through 10 randomized maps. Some battles will have a chance to recruit new teammates. These battles are a little more difficult, but the rewards will add more versatility to the combat. Progressing through the campaign will level up teammates, making them stronger for the next fight. There is also a Mission mode, which is a type of challenge mode to pit wits against the AI. This allows some customization for the player to pick the map type, factions, and difficulty, but this can also be randomized. There is a ranked option that will score a player’s performance against others online.

The slightly punishing AI gives this battle a bit of a learning curve to players. Like a chess game, one wrong move will have consequences and the AI is ready to take advantage of mistakes. The difficulty is very adaptive and sometimes feels a little overwhelming, especially starting out in the campaign. Players will have to explore the strengths and weaknesses of the units to get a sense of what is allowed in the game. Getting familiar with a particular faction takes some time, but is rewarding if you are patient enough.

Since this was a beta version, there were some odd glitches or messing options that sometimes spoiled the enjoyment. There were times when the attack animation glitched and crashed the game. A very important feature missing was a save data option to take a break from the campaign. Campaign mode feels like a gauntlet challenge that made every battle count and a loss resets the whole progress.

At its core, Gem Wizards Tactics has a strong combat system that handles well. The gameplay resembles difficult RPGs from the SNES era. The charming pixel spirits and the colorful aesthetics give it that neat retro feel. The units are fun mash-up of different themes and great animations to keep battles exciting. The music score is simple but effective that doesn’t distract from the player’s attention. The overall package needs a little more polish. Keith Burgun has been addressing these issues to improve the quality as the game approaches its public release. Don’t overlook this game as an arcade-style RPG, there is a lot of dept to the combat that will appeal to its intended RPG fans. Gem Wizards Tactics was released on February 16th, 2021.

TinyShot (Zach): Published by Headup and developed by single developer Allaith Hammed, Tinyshot is a rogue-like shooter that pays homage to games like The Binding of Isaac and Super Meat Boy.  You play as Tiny, who has signed a deal with the Devil to recover his lost horn in exchange for the love and respect he never received.  You battle your way through different stages and face off against waves of disturbing and weird enemies until you survive long enough to take on the boss of that stage.  Defeat the boss and you unlock a new stage and can start a new run to beat those stages, unlock a new one and repeat until you ultimately beat the game and get the Devil back his horn.

Tiny has a wide array of moves at his disposal, including a dash that can send you vertically and horizontally across the screen in a split second, a grappling hook for reaching higher areas, and two weapons at a time that you can switch between on the fly.  Each stage is basically an arena and enemies will spawn in and you defeat them to earn their souls.  Earn enough souls and you can spend them to get a buff from a magic statue or visit the weapon shop and buy new weapons.

One interesting aspect of the wave-based combat is that the boss encounter eventually unlocks but you can keep grinding waves of enemies if you want in order to get more souls and maybe buy a better weapon or you can just go immediately and try to take them on, with the battle with the boss usually being a pretty intense bullet hellesque test of skill but that’s balanced by the incredibly tight and fast controls, which let you zoom around the map and quickly dodge and outflank enemies.  One minor complaint is the low ammo capacity and shared ammo for the guns.  You can quickly run out of ammo fighting the enemy hordes and you will need to retreat and find ammo to keep fighting or switch to a melee weapon, which makes you much more likely to take damage.

Enemies also can rapidly drain your life and some can one-shot kill you but that’s also by design to add to the skill-based, rogue-like difficulty of the game.  The art style is a great homage to the developer’s love of Edward McMillen’s catalog and the enemies have a sort of Tim Burtonesque quality to them as well.  Tinyshot is a fast, intense, and fun 2d shooter/rogue-like and it’s even more impressive given the age of the developer and the fact that he did it all by himself.  Tinyshot is out now on Steam.

Hard Ship (Zach): Out now on Android for free, Hard Ship from Eskape2Play combines elements of Space Invaders and Arkanoid for an interesting arcade-style action game.  You control a Hard Ship and must delay an endless invasion of aliens for as long as you can.  The Hard Ship’s main weapon is energy orbs that it can bounce into the enemy forces and you move your ship back and forth to keep the orbs going and take out the incoming waves of aliens.  The aliens move in classic Space Invaders style, slowly marching down the screen until they ultimately reach the bottom and destroy you.

To accommodate playing on your phone, the game only uses two taps to control it.  Tapping on one side of the screen will let you move your Hard Ship “paddle” back and forth and the other tap will launch the energy orbs.  There’s a bit of momentum and delay to moving the Hard Ship, as it will move without stopping to whatever side of the screen it’s moving until you switch it back and it does take a bit to get used to and I think I would prefer more direct over the “paddle” like in Arkanoid or Breakout but it is an interesting control scheme for a phone and it lets you comfortably play while holding your phone vertically.

You earn experience and coins with each run and you can level up and unlock new kinds of Hard Ships.  The game has a fun steam-punkesque graphic style and there are more features on the way, including more story and a global leaderboard.  Since it won’t cost you anything to check out, if you have an Android phone and are a fan of games like Arkanoid, Hard Ship is worth checking out and is a solid way to kill some time.

Turrican Flashback (Zach): A massive cult favorite in Europe, the Turrican series is back and will hopefully find a new audience here in the US and beyond with the 4 game Turrican Flashback collection.  Original developer Factor 5 teamed with ININ Games to bring the Turrican games to Switch and PS4 with new features but the same great gameplay.  You can play Turrican, the original game that started it all on the Amiga along with its sequel, Turrican II, Super Turrican, which debuted on the SNES, and Mega Turrican, which was on Genesis/Mega Drive.  The games are all incredibly great 2d shooters/platformers that at first glance may seem like Contra or other run and gun games.  They definitely are run and gun games but there are way more options available to you and much more emphasis on exploration.  Your goal is to progress through each stage but each stage is pretty massive and full of little nooks and crannies and alternate paths that contain power-ups and collectibles.  There are multiple weapons available for your Turrican armor and you can collect power-ups of the same color to level it up to crazy powerful levels.

Super Turrican, which is my personal favorite of the games, also gives you a beam that can freeze enemies and a Metroid-style roll maneuver that you can use to get into tighter areas and drop bombs to kill enemies.  Super Turrican also has an interesting concept where hidden platforms will appear that will spew out power-ups as you keep shooting them.  However, if you destroy them, you will probably lose your route to a higher area of the level that might have even more and better power-ups.  Mega Turrican differentiates itself from its SNES counterpart by giving you a grappling hook but it’s slightly more linear and simple than Super.  The original two games are not quite as frantic and action-packed as the 16-bit follow-ups but it’s very cool to be able to check them out, as it’s pretty difficult to play them on their original hardware.

There are tons of visual settings you can use to adjust how the game looks, including the standard scanline emulation that is in all these classic collections and it also has a rewind feature to help make your way through some of the more tricky sections of the games and you can also use save states to maintain your progress as well. The controls have also been adjusted to fit the modern controllers of the Switch and PS4 and some functions that required some sort of button combo before are now mapped to a single button.

This might throw off old-school Turrican fans but it definitely helps when the action is intense and you only need to hit one button. The games all have their original classic graphics and excellent music by composer Chris Huelsbeck that is upbeat but driving and perfectly complements the action.  Unless you grew up in Europe, you may not really be familiar with the Turrican games but this is an excellent way to check them out.  All the games still hold up, especially Super Turrican, and they are full of intense action in massive, wide-open levels that encourage exploration.  If you like run and gun games, the Turrican games are classics in the genre that deserve new and old fans to check them out.

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