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Two things are interesting, to me, about my gaming habits in 2021. Firstly, I’ve definitely spent more time with Xbox than I have PlayStation titles, which is an illustration of just how excellent Game Pass has been this year. And secondly, the most fun I’ve had with games all told has almost exclusively been with older titles. Retro games, if we must - and, we will. Releases from the 1980s and ‘90s (and, okay, a few from the 21st century) which have been given new leases of life in the here and now.
Let’s start at the start: January 2021. 1990’s Turrican and its 1991-released sequel, Turrican II: The Final Fight, were amongst my very favourite games on the Commodore Amiga, as a kid. These challenging run-and-gunners were widely ported across other computers, handhelds and home consoles, but it’s really the Amiga that they’re most regularly associated with. So it was a thrill to play them again in January’s Turrican Flashback collection for Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4, which also includes the Mega Drive’s Mega Turrican and the Super Nintendo’s Super Turrican (see what they did there, huh). It isn’t quite the complete Turrican collection, but anyone who loves the likes of Super Metroid and Gunstar Heroes and hasn’t checked these games out before, you’re in for a treat.
Check out the Turrican Flashback launch trailer below…
I also picked up SEGA’s amazing Astro City Mini console in January, imported from Japan - and then it went and got itself some official UK distribution, didn’t it. Standard. If you can afford it, it’s a delightful way to revisit some SEGA arcade classics like Virtua Fighter and Space Harrier, and perhaps play a few for the first time. There are 37 games in all, and sold-separately control pads and arcade sticks are available if you want to plug the mini-cab into your TV. (They’re doing a second one now, the Mini V… RIP my wallet.)
February gave us two very different compilations from two very famous names in gaming. The Blizzard Arcade Collection brought together three games from the early, pre-Warcraft days of Blizzard, and not one of them was direct from the arcades. Nevertheless, Rock n’ Roll Racing and The Lost Vikings haven’t lost much of their charm, while Blackthorne never had much to begin with.
Shamefully, we didn’t cover February’s best retro release, but it demands attention here. Capcom Arcade Stadium was released for the Switch three days after Valentine’s (it came to other platforms in May), and was just about the sweetest gift lovers of the Japanese giant’s arcade heyday (which is to say, the 1980s to the early ‘00s) could have asked for. Players could choose what they paid to unlock, but in total 32 titles were made available with a wide array of display options, save states and other quality of life updates. And there are some absolute bangers here, from shooters like Progear and 1944: The Loop Master to essential beat ‘em ups Battle Circuit and Final Fight. Everywhere you look, there are classics: Strider, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, Mercs. Street Fighter II is here too, of course, but the AI is still a terrible, just unforgivable cheat. And sticking with Capcom, Ghosts ‘n Goblins got resurrected in February, with new visuals but the same incredible difficulty.
The Neo Geo Pocket and its subsequent coloured revision weren’t exactly the most popular handhelds on the market at the turn of the millennium, but Switch owners were treated to a compact but compelling collection of some terrific Pocket titles in March. With eight games covering the expected fighters (this is Neo Geo, after all), a pair of Metal Slugs and the excellent Neo Turf Masters (not the MVS/AES version, obviously, but this one’s almost as good), Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection Vol 1 represents a fantastic piece of portable gaming history. Fingers crossed for a second volume, perhaps including the underrated Sonic the Hedgehog Pocket Adventure and Puzzle Bobble Mini. March also saw a reissue for the cult original Xbox brains ‘em up Stubbs the Zombie In Rebel Without a Pulse - a game that famously ran on the Halo engine, but never made the longstanding mark that Master Chief achieved.
Check out the trailer for Battle Axe below…
I’m dragging on here a bit, huh. Let’s speed things up. Battle Axe came out in April and it’s really good. It’s not an old game, but it plays like one - and looks beautiful doing so, too, with that kind of pixel art that your brain tricks you into thinking was possible in the 1990s but can really only be pulled off in the present day. Wonder Boy series standout Monster World IV got a brilliant remake in the shape of Asha in Monster World - and it included the original game too, as a bonus. Nice. Similarly remade were two Famicom Detective Club games, bringing the previously Japan-only 8-bit titles up to date for Switch. And just before summertime dawned in the northern hemisphere, we got our hands on the FunKey S, a (less than) palm-sized flip-style console that can play a raft of old games from NES to PlayStation (PS1, that is), but might make your thumbs totally numb if used for sessions stretching beyond 20 minutes or so. And your eyeballs? Forget about them, they’re dust.
Players who prefer digital gaming to collecting physical releases may already know about the retro-streaming service Antstream Arcade, but the free-to-use platform - think Netflix for retro games - had a stellar 2021. It has over 1,000 titles available, playable on your computer and select other devices, and is adding more all the time. There are also challenges to participate in and leaderboards to climb, and a premium subscription option means you can play without ads. Joining Antstream in the retro-streaming market in 2021 was Piepacker - a service that lets you play in real time with your pals online. What’s more, a special gizmo lets you plug in original cartridges, and you can then play those games over the internet, too (subject to compatibility, of course). Both of these services are fantastic options for retro players who don’t want their homes cluttered with more and more hardware - and we covered them extensively in a feature piece in July.
Also helping fans of all things old reconnect with classics of yesteryear was the expansion to Nintendo’s Switch Online service. 2021 has seen both SEGA Mega Drive games and select titles from the Nintendo 64 library added to the subscription service, and while the performance has received criticism, likewise its pricing, there’s no denying the thrill that one gets playing Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64 on a new Switch OLED. Okay, Super Mario 64 was already available, sort of, but you get what I mean. Sticking with Nintendo, and the Japanese gaming giant finally gave The Legend of Zelda series a little respect for its 35th anniversary with the release of a pretty darn beautiful new Game & Watch, which includes the original The Legend of Zelda from 1986, its NES sequel Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and the wonderful Game Boy title Link’s Awakening (yes, the one that got a Switch remake in 2019). If you love all things Zelda and/or Nintendo, this one’s a bit of a must.
The year in retro ended with a double-whammy of amazing new console releases. First up, the Evercade VS, the home version of the handheld that lit up my 2020 like little else. We have a detailed review of this console right here, but the tl;dr is that it runs bespoke cartridges (two at a time), comes with some pretty decent controllers, and its software library ranges from the early days of the Intellivision and Atari 2600 through to modern retro-styled indies and a new range of arcade collections. If the digital play model of Antstream and Piepacker doesn’t do it for you, the itch-scratching physical collecting aspect of Evercade just might. My favourite Evercade release of the year is absolutely the Codemasters Collection, with Sensible Soccer and Cannon Fodder; but the VS arrived alongside a new Bitmap Brothers cartridge including Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe and The Chaos Engine, which is also right up there.
Watch the Evercade VS trailer, below…
And then we have the Analogue Pocket, a high-end handheld that’ll make your Game Boy games (and Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance - and more with the relevant adaptors) look better than ever. My Twitter has been awash with peers and pals showing their Pockets off - but this idiot didn’t order one, and the waiting list now stretches into 2023. If you’ve an Analogue Pocket under the tree this Christmas, rest assured that I am incredibly jealous. Please don’t just leave it in a box to collect dust: use it, as gaming history really should be played rather than simply read about on Wikipedia. Alternatively, if you’re not arsed about it, send it my way.
Okay! That’ll do, as dinner’s almost ready. 2022 is going to bring us the Amiga 500 Mini, which I am super up for - see that Turrican paragraph, all the way back up there - and a brand-new Turtles game created in the style of Konami’s old arcade smashes. River City Girls 2? A big, fat Yes Please to that. And Taito’s forthcoming EGRET II Mini is getting a European release, which means we’ll be able to play the likes of Space Invaders, Bubble Bobble and Darius Gaiden on a brilliant-looking miniature arcade cab, with a rotating screen, without hefty import charges. Maybe we’ll even see that new console Atari thinks it’s making, eh? Yeah. Maybe.
Featured Image Credit: Nintendo, Capcom, The Bitmap Brothers/Rebellion Developments
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