Since college, I’ve wanted a handheld system that could play every video game from my childhood. I’m not a particularly nostalgic person, but I do replay my favorite games every few years or so. If it holds up, I’ll come back to it again. If it doesn’t, well, thanks for the memories.
This year I purchased not one, but two. The first was an Anbernic RG353P. Not exactly a catchy name, but it did the trick. I purchased it ahead of a flight to Denmark, my first international flight. The company bringing me out paid for business class, so I decided to treat myself: a retro handheld, an SD card loaded with games, and a long flight in a pod-like setup where I had a small desk and USB ports to charge devices.
My second retro handheld, and my current favorite, is an AYN Odin. If I’d heard of the Odin before I purchased the Anbernic RG-whatever, I’d have stuck with it. Not that I have any complaints about the RG. But the Odin is an Android system able to play emulators through the Wii, with great performance. The RG breaks out in a sweat when I play certain N64 games.
Between these two handhelds, I’ve finished over a dozen retro games this year. Some I played as a kid. Others I wanted to play but either couldn’t find or forgot about as I grew older and moved on to other platforms. To celebrate the third anniversary of Shacknews Cortex, I thought I’d post my reviews of the games I’ve beaten. I review every game and book I finish, more as a writing exercise to break down what I liked or disliked about an experience, and why it did or didn’t work for me. If you’ve finished any of these games, feel free to chime in with your thoughts!
Before I get to the games, I’ll share more thoughts on each of the handhelds. Anbernic RG-blah-blah-blah is much better than I’m making it out to be. It’s as comfortable and responsive as a Super NES controller. More comfortable than the Odin, in fact, one of the only strikes I have against AYN’s beefy handheld. It’s perfect if you want to play retro games (and ROM hacks, of which I’ve played several) up through and including PS1. Not every game is compatible, and not every game runs well, but I’d say about 80% of what I tried to play worked great. I read up on the RG while waiting for it to arrive, and ended up wiping the default OS (don’t even remember what it was) and replacing it with JelOS. It’s less of a resource hog, has greater compatibility with more games, and better performance. Games that ran like slideshows on the default OS were silky smooth with JelOS installed. Food for thought if you decide to spring for the RG.
My only real complaint about the Odin, as I mentioned above, is that it’s slightly less comfortable than the RG. It’s not uncomfortable to the point of discomfort, but I should mention that my hands do cramp occasionally while holding the Odin, and never have while using the RG-yada-yada. Now that that’s out of the way, I’ll get to the really important part: The Odin is one of the best gaming platforms I’ve ever owned, ever. I’ve only encountered a few games that run less than perfectly, and that’s to be expected when you’re trying to emulate more powerful consoles like the PS2 and Wii. Even then, every PS2 game I’ve tried except two—Dead or Alive 2 Hardcore and Street Fighter Alpha Anthology—have played great. Mario Kart Wii and New Super Mario Bros. Wii are a little choppy, but only until gameplay starts. I’m playing DOA2 on Dreamcast at 4K resolution, running PS2 games at 1080p, and Wii games at 720p.
I wish I could push the Odin further, but I really can’t complain seeing as I’m able to play 99% of my favorite games without a hitch. AYN launched a successful crowdfunding campaign for the Odin 2 this year (just my luck), and while I don’t regret this purchase, I definitely see myself springing for the new model sometime next year. Probably right before they announce the Odin 3.
Let’s move on to the games.
Donkey Kong Country 2 and 3
I finished DKC2 with 102% completion, the maximum possible in the game, and only looked up the location of one hero coin. I found all 39 others, plus all the secrets, on my own.
That game is fantastic; before the next game on this list, it was tied with Super Mario World as my favorite platformer. DKC2 is special. Great graphics and soundtrack; great “play control,” as magazines used to call it; phenomenal level design; intuitive yet challenging secrets to find.
Then I replayed DKC3. I've thought of this game as my second favorite in the trilogy, right after DKC2. That’s no longer the case. Every game in the DKC trilogy improved on the one before it: DKC2 refined the presentation, systems, and level design of DKC, and DKC3 polishes everything from 2 to a blinding sheen.
In DKC2, Hero Coins were hidden arbitrarily. Maybe they'd be floating somewhere in the sky! Maybe you had to swing from invisible hooks in the air! In DKC3, every level has a kremling holding a hero coin. It uses the coin as a shield, and while it can't hurt you, it'll block any attack with its coin-turned-shield.
There's always a steel barrel nearby, and you get the Hero Coin by hitting the kremling with the barrel from behind. The rub is the kremling turns to face you as you move, so you'll have to find a way to 1) throw the shield over his head and 2) make sure there's a wall behind him so the shield can rebound and hit him in the back.
DKC3 has so much variety in level design, even more than DKC2. One level transforms you into your spider buddy (returning from DKC2) and has you dodging fireballs shot from cannons. In a bonus stage in that level, you control the cannon and blast enemies!
The variety is endless. A giant saw blade follow you up giant trees as the screen scrolls up. Sentient explosive barrels track your movements from above and below as you move along ropes. One boss fight has a pseudo-3D presentation that pivots to a behind-the-shoulder view as you throw snowballs as a snowman.
My biggest issue with DKC3 is the RPG-like trading game you participate in as you progress. There are anthropomorphic bars in each zone (set of levels), and giving them objects rewards you with either another object or access to a cave where you play a Simon Says-like memory game to free a banana bird. Those birds inhabit an NPC's cave. They don't do anything. They're essentially animated trophies, and they count toward the game's final completion rating of 103%.
I enjoy uncovering secrets, especially in 2D platformers (my favorite genre). But running around trading items and freeing birds gets tedious, and the birds don't feel like much of a payoff. I'm not sure I'd bother searching them out if they didn't count toward my completion rating. (Okay, I probably would, because I'm more focused on journeys over destinations in games and stories. Still, it'd be nice if they did something other than flying around an NPC's cave.)
I love DKC2's atmosphere the most, and its levels are fantastic, but DKC3 is my favorite.
Prince of Persia 2 Remastered (Sega Genesis ROM Hack)
I have fond memories of receiving Prince of Persia 2, and of playing it. My friend and I noticed the original during an outing to Cleveland with his dad. We were at a CompUSA, and on an end cap was a Mac running Prince. My Uncle Brad surprised me with a DOS copy a month or so later, and I played it over and over.
Fast forward a couple of years. My grandparents would drive cross country every winter to visit with friends and spend a few months in Palm Springs. A day or two after they returned home, we’d go over and they would pass out souvenirs. When my grandpa entered the living room, I noticed him holding a trapezoidal box behind his back. There was only one thing that could be. Broderbund released some of the Prince games in those boxes. Plus, I knew about Prince 2 from letters exchanged with my uncle, who described playing the game and doing things like jumping on the back of a marble horse that came to life and spirited him up to a temple in the mountains. Grandpa made his way around the room, holding the box so I could see just enough for me to know what it was. Every now and then he’d double back, making up a reason to talk to someone about their souvenir, all the while knowing I was practically vibrating with anticipation.
At last he handed the box to me with a grin on his face. I knew this souvenir came from Uncle Brad by way of Grandpa. My PC couldn’t run it, but Grandma and Grandpa’s could. I installed it and played at every opportunity.
Fast forward to earlier this year, when I decided to try the SNES port on an emulator. Bad idea. I didn’t know how maligned this version was until I tried it for myself. The controls are floaty and movement is erratic, a bad combination when you’re playing a game as demanding as this. Some googling led me to a ROM hack for the unfinished Sega Genesis version. It plays like a dream and recreates the PC experience admirably.
Prince of Persia 2 spans several environments, whereas the first game alternated between dungeons and palace chambers. You’ll spelunk through caves, explore a crumbling palace, scale to the summit of a temple, and return to Persia for your showdown against Jaffar. The sequel is much tougher in terms of combat and puzzles, but more rewarding. If you liked solving the movement-based brainteasers of the first game, POP2 satisfied in the same way, only more so, since it’s much more difficult. Some of the enemies, like the decapitated heads drifting through the derelict castle, are cheap and frustrating, but everything else about this game is superb.
Prince of Persia (Super NES)
Jordan Mechner designed Prince of Persia for the Apple II, and Broderbund contracted other studios to port it to various platforms. One of those was MS-DOS, the version I played incessantly as a kid. Another was to the SNES, but it was no mere port. Prince SNES features a new art style, background music, expanded versions of the original 12 levels, and brand-new levels. The game handles beautifully, and the expanded and new levels challenged the scary amount of information I’ve retained about the original game.
Prince SNES expands on other areas of the original, such as Jaffar’s magic. I always thought it strange that Jaffar would use magic to channel an hourglass out of thin air, but when you confront him in the final level, he duels you with a sword. Why wouldn’t a sorcerer fight with magic? Maybe he failed out of wizard college because conjuring hourglasses was the only spell he could get right. Not so in the SNES version. The final battle is engaging and more what one would expect from a sorcerer. There are other bosses besides Jaffar, giving Prince SNES a more conventional video game-y feel that feels appropriate: Jaffar would grow more desperate to stop you as you drew closer to escaping, leading him to throw his best lieutenants at you.
My only complaint is that while the background music is fine, the classic game didn’t have any. That lent an ambient feel to levels; dungeons would be silent except for your footsteps, the clash of steel as you duel guards, and the grunts and groans of prisoners as they attempt escape or fall victim to the environment’s traps.
Prince SNES is my new favorite version of this classic, and a must-play for fans of the original.
Super Mario Land 2
I read an interview with Super Mario Land 2’s developers where they worried that some players would find the game too difficult. They were thinking of kids, of course, Nintendo’s primary audience. I played SML 2 when I was 11 or 12 and don’t remember finding it too difficult. Now, I never finished it, but that was because I was borrowing a friend’s copy and had to return it.
I’ve played so many video games, particularly 2D Mario platforms, since SML 2 that I can no longer give an objective account of whether the game is difficult. I can see younger players having trouble with some levels, but as someone who still struggles with Super Mario World’s later levels and its secret worlds, I breezed through SML 2. I think that works in its favor. The levels are beautifully designed and represent a major leap forward from Super Mario Land in art and aesthetic. The music is catchy and the power-ups, especially the carrot that gives you bunny ears with which to float around, are fun to use. Where Super Mario World’s worlds were themed around topography (plains, caverns, forests), SML 2’s worlds have more playful themes. One is a toy world, another takes you to the moon, and still another is set outside a haunted castle.
Not much about SML 2 stuck with me after I finished it, but I still like the broad strokes such as level themes and power-ups. It’s worth playing if you enjoy 2D platformers and 2D Mario games especially. There are much better Mario platformers now, but for the early ‘90s, this was one of the better entries.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Game Boy Advance, because why not)
I owned the Legend of Zelda as a kid, and played Zelda 2 at a friend’s house. I didn’t play A Link to the Past (ALTTP) until years later. I’m not sure why. I loved Zelda 1, but I think I’d developed an interest in PC games, namely first-person shooters, and was playing other console games, namely platformers. Ocarina of Time made Zelda my favorite franchise and is still my favorite game of all time. That made ALTTP an anomaly for this Zelda fan. I played it eventually and made solved two, maybe three dungeons in the Dark World before putting it down for… whatever reason.
I was in the mood for a 2D Zelda and returned to ALTTP to right the wrong of never finishing it. I enjoyed it, but it does show its age. First, the good. The Light and Dark Worlds are brilliantly designed. I love exploring, and I love that the maps are as dense with secrets as they are massive. They may seem small now, but for 1992, ALTTP having not one but two overworlds was a big deal. Most of the dungeons are challenging without feeling intentionally labyrinthine for no reason than to pad your play time. Link’s arsenal is arguably his best. The two canes (one optional, one mandatory) are clever and fun to use; I’d love to see them return in another Zelda game, although that seems unlikely now that Nintendo has gone all-in on Zelda’s Breath of the Wild-style design.
The art and sound direction shine, too. It’s hard to believe ALTTP launched less than a year after the SNES was available in North America. It remains one of the best games for the system… but it has flaws. The biggest, which rears its head repeatedly, is that it is obtuse in the same way many 8- and 16-bit games were obtuse. Many console developers came had an arcade background, so they were used to making games punishingly difficult so you’d keep feeding them quarters. But that’s “cheap.” What I mean by “obtuse” is developers either lacked the technical knowhow to give players just enough guidance to get them moving after they’ve hit a wall, or their attempts made little sense. The result of either method was puzzles and areas that felt like they were meant to be solved using guesswork or a strategy guide.
My favorite example from my playthrough occurred in a dungeon where I found a maiden who asked me to escort her outside. Made sense: She was imprisoned and defenseless, and wants her rescuer to lead her to safety. Only every time I took her to an exit, she said, literally, “Eh… not that way.” The solution was to bomb the floor of the room above the boss room, then lead the “maiden” into the light pouring into the boss room where she was exposed as a monster. Two problems with this:
1) Why did she ask to go “outside?” Nintendo should have come up with a better hint. Players don’t want things spelled out, but asking to be taken outside wasn’t just a poor hint; it was misleading.
2) I didn’t think to bomb the floor above the boss room because I had tried and failed to bomb cracked floors elsewhere in the dungeon. I probably came across the floor I needed to bomb, but didn’t bother trying because that tactic had failed everywhere else. The cracks in the room above the boss chamber looked no different than the other cracks I’d tried and failed to bomb, so why would I try again?
The Dark World map is also cumbersome to navigate. ALTTP marks the start of the Zelda franchise’s linear design: first do this dungeon, where you’ll find an item to do the next, where you’ll find another item to do the next, and so on. Many areas in the Dark World are gated and can only be accessed after you’ve claimed a certain item. But even after you’ve found every item and opened every path, the paths don’t stay open. This means you have to take long, circuitous routes to get almost everywhere, using your inventory to open and re-open the same paths again and again and again.
I can’t knock ALLTP too much for this design. This was, after all, the first. It’s worth bringing up, especially for newer fans who jumped onto the Zelda bandwagon through Breath of the Wild or Tears of the Kingdom and want to explore older entries. ALTTP is a classic, but a classic with some design decisions from 1992 that slow down what’s otherwise a fun and smooth experience.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
A Nightmare on Elm Street on NES (not to be confused with the PC version, which was its own thing) gets a bad rap. People take one loop at the LJN logo and run screaming in the other direction. The main reason for that, I suspect, is James Rolfe’s early “Angry Video Game Nerd” reviews where he took LJN games such as Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street to task for being terrible.
Many of them were terrible, but Nightmare is different in two ways. The first is that LJN published it, but they didn’t develop it. The second is the developer itself: Rare, the same Rare that would go on to create classics such as the Donkey Kong Country Trilogy, GoldenEye 007, Perfect Dark, and Banjo-Kazooie.
To be fair, Rare’s games in the ‘80s and ‘90s, pre-DK Country, were hit or miss. They were Rare, not RARE. Also to be fair, Nightmare isn’t a 10 out of 10, or even a 9 out of 10, or an 8. I’d give it between a 6-7. Some elements, such as the stock enemies (bats, skeletons, rats, Frankenstein’s monsters, ghosts that look like sheets thrown over a mannequin) are uninspired. And others, such as cheaply placed traps and enemies, an abominable trend that ran rampant in the 8- and 16-bit days, are frustrating and bad. Everything else is either very well done or good. For a licensed game in the ‘90s, “good” is good enough.
You and up to three friends (making Nightmare one of few NES games to support four players) are teenagers on the hunt for Freddy’s bones. You go from houses to junkyards to cemeteries and finally to Elm Street High, where you win the game by tossing all those bones into a furnace. All the while, your sleep meter is draining. While awake, you’re just a normal kid able to jump and punch. Asleep, you can transform into a javelin-throwing acrobat, a wizard able to jump farther and fire blasts of magic, and a ninja with a short-range shuriken and a flying-kick for a jump, making it an offensive and defensive maneuver.
There are times you’ll want to stay awake, and time you’ll want to fall asleep and enter the dream world. You have no powers while awake, but Freddy Kreuger stalks you in your sleep. You’ll even hear the melody of the chilling “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you” rhyme sung by creepy little girls in the movies. The trick is to make sure you’re in the dream world before challenging the boss of each area. They’re fairly easy, and this is one of the game’s weaker points, but not so easy that you’d rather confront them with nothing but your fist.
Perhaps the biggest failing of Nightmare, the franchise that gave the world Freddy Kreuger, is that Freddy himself is the easiest boss to defeat. Whether you’ve reached the final battle or he’s caught up with you in your dreams, he follows the same pattern: walk forward, slash, jump, repeat. Every boss’s movements are based on patterns that are easy to figure out and exploit. But this is Freddy Kreuger! A movie-monster-turned-pop-culture icon! Yet disappointingly, he’s the most braindead boss in the lineup.
Don’t play Nightmare expecting to be blown away by some sleeper hit from the last century. Like I said, the highest this game’s score goes is a 7. But it’s a strong 7 if you can overlook its flaws.
I love Diablo so much I wrote a book about it. More here if you’re interested: https://www.amazon.com/Stay-Awhile-Listen-Legendary-Video-Game-ebook/dp/B00G8UL474
Diablo is the ultimate action-RPG: you hack, and you slash, and you absorb most of the lore through the haunting audiovisual aesthetic crafted by Blizzard North, whose teams created Diablo 1 and 2. The second game is objectively better, but as a gaming historian whose career started with Diablo, I’ve found that each of the first three entries (haven’t played 4) all have strengths.
The first Diablo makes the best use of procedural (aka random, even though it’s not really random) content generation: level construction, monsters you’ll face, even the quests you’ll undertake, are designed from algorithms that give you a fresh experience every time you play. Diablo 2’s biggest strength is its character customization made possible through the diversity of its skill trees. And Diablo 3 has the richest and most expansive endgame content.
I’ve played Diablo on PC more times than I can count, but I also enjoy the PlayStation version. It makes great use of colored lighting tech present in other PC-to-PS1 conversions such as Doom. The controls are cumbersome at first, and Diablo 3’s console versions were much better, but for a game released before the advent of the DualShock’s analog sticks, Diablo plays very well.
There’s a major drawback to this version, however. One I wasn’t aware of until this playthrough. There are three classes of items in Diablo: normal, written in white text; magic, written in blue text; and uniques, written in orange/gold. Magic items have random values: deal between X-Y damage, add X points to your attributes, and so on. Unique items are one-of-a-kind pieces of equipment, as you’d expect. They’re the rarest item type, so naturally you’d want (and expect) to carry them with you when you take your character into a new game. Nope! This version intentionally destroys your uniques and gives you gold to make up for the loss.
I suspect the reasoning here is to increase the value of unique items by making them usable noly in the game where you found them, but it’s a dirty trick. Finding rare items in Diablo games is a thrill. Having them taken away when you did nothing wrong is unfair enough that I instantly felt discouraged from continuing to play with my Rogue character.
Diablo is still great, and this port is excellent, but being penalized for playing the game according to its own rules is a kick in the gut.
Doom for PlayStation (aka Doom PSX) is my favorite port of the game. It’s not the best; that distinction belongs to the PC version, the original, but “best” is not the same as “favorite.” Doom PSX stands out because it’s not just a straight port of Doom. Other companies attempted that on other platforms (Atari Jaguar, Sega 32X, Sega Saturn, Super NES) with mixed results. The PS1 wasn’t quite up to the task of a straight port either. Rather than attempt one, Williams, the home console division of arcade juggernaut Williams/Midway, changed things up.
The first difference you’ll notice is the soundtrack and sound effects. Composer Aubrey Hodges took Doom’s action-horror aesthetic and amplified the horror. Every level’s track is eerie and creepy. Sound effects have more weight, and are deeper, particularly monster grunts and howls. Combine that with brilliant colored lighting, a feature unique to the PS1’s hardware, and you’ve got a game that builds dread with every step you take, even if, like me, you’ve played through Doom more times than you can count.
Next is the structure of the game itself. Doom PSX lets you play through The Ultimate Doom and Doom II. The difference is Ultimate Doom is not broken into episodes. Id Software structured the original game that way because it was designed to be distributed as shareware: The first episode was free, and then you could buy the full game to get the rest. That structure meant the episodes could not be contiguous. Players could select them in any order, and you start from scratch every time: handgun with 50 bullets, 100 health points, and zero armor. On Doom PSX, those episodes have been strung together, which means you carry your arsenal and status from one “episode” to the next. They’re not even episodes, really, since there’s no break between levels.
Once you finish The Ultimate Doom, you’re given a password that lets you continue into Doom 2. You can choose Doom 2 from the main menu if you’d rather start there, but the coolness factor of adding continuity between episodes and the two games makes starting from the beginning a novel experience. The only caveat with Doom PSX’s password system is the passwords capture an approximation of your status, rather than the status itself. For instance, if you have 234 bullets remaining for the pistol and chaingun, it’ll round up or down to the nearest multiple of 10. This isn’t a big deal—I went from Doom into Doom 2 more than powerful enough to breeze through the first dozen or so levels—but it’s too bad the password system isn’t more accurate.
From there, we get into little changes that add up to the most unique Doom port ever made. There’s no Nightmare difficulty, thank goodness, because playing a mode where enemies move and attack twice as fast, and respawn after 10-30 seconds, with a controller would be a nightmare, pun intended. Ultra-Violence is the highest difficulty, and if you select it, you’ll find Doom 2 enemies such as the Revenant, Mancubus, and Pain Elemental scattered throughout Doom 1’s levels. It’s a nice tough that keeps fans who know every inch of every level on their toes.
Not every level from Doom and Doom 2 made the jump. Like many ports released in the ‘90s, Doom PSX was derived from id Software’s in-house conversion to Atari Jaguar. They had to cut some levels and simplify others for the game to work on the 32-bit platform. Some enemies were cut as well. But none of these omissions detract from the experience. While other ports derived from id’s Jaguar conversion left these gaping holes, Williams built custom levels to replace them. That means Doom fans not only get to experience the first two games with the PlayStation version’s excellent aesthetic, they’ll have brand-new levels to play as well.
It should be noted that the control scheme is one of Doom PSX’s only failings. It’s not bad, but the game was released before the advent of Sony’s DualShock controller and before twin-stick controls became standard for shooters on consoles. You can remap action buttons such as use and attack, but movement will feel clunky relative to the experience on the PC. That’s the case with every console port of Doom. I should note that while I’ve played through the game on PS1 hardware, I finished this playthrough on the AYN Odin, a retro handheld that supports twin sticks and allows you to remap movements and actions. The controls were still a tad awkward, but not as much as they were on a controller without any sticks.
I can’t recommend Doom PSX enough. You can play it on original or retro hardware, or you can download a total conversion mod for modern source ports on PC such as GZDoom.
I’d wager that when most people see or hear the name “Rockstar Games,” they think of Grand Theft Auto. Not me. I think of Manhunt. The game celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. It had been a while since I played it to completion, so I did just that, playing intermittently over several weeks.
There are a couple of reasons I played in burst. One was my packed schedule. The other was the fact that Manhunt is terrifying. It’s classified as a stealth-action game (you sneak through some missions, run and gun through others) but the atmosphere, audio, and game design make it just as much of a horror experience.
You’re John Earl Cash, a death row inmate sentenced to die by lethal injection. Instead of dying, you wake up in a dirty room and are informed by a snuff film director that he arranged for you to be knocked out instead of executed. He’s cast you as the hero in his latest snuff film, set in a derelict city crawling with gangs that will kill you on sight. Your job is to kill them all as brutally as possible while following all of the director’s increasingly specific and dangerous rules.
Manhunt is Metal Gear Solid without any of Hideo Kojima’s hokey, self-referencing nonsense. Most levels require you to sneak up to enemies and execute them using a variety of weapons. Some weapons are good for one use, while others are permanent but make noise when you use them. You survive these missions by hiding in shadows and using objects to distract enemies or lure them to your location. You’re basically invisible while hiding in shadows. So invisible that some enemies (but not all) will stare right at you and not see a thing.
This is where horror comes into play. The level design is masterfully done. You’re making your way through city streets, junkyards, factories, shopping malls, and other realistic environments, and those environments feel realistic. The layouts all make sense; you can even run in and out of many of the shops in the mall. The director’s home is a sprawling mansion, so sprawling it’s easy to get turned around. And that’s a good thing. Every area feels grungy, lived in, and dangerous, yet also includes video game-y trappings such as shadows to hide in. Those shadowy areas are crucial, but a lesser developer would have made them feel bolted on in a “This is a stealth game so let’s throw in places to hide” sort of way.
If you’re playing on normal difficulty, you’ll see a radar that shows you enemy positions and their status: unaware, suspicious, or aware of your position and coming to kill you. The catch with the radar is it’s not a map, just a radar; you’ll have to scout areas for the best places to hide and where enemies patrol, sometimes on the fly such as when enemies are scripted to find you and you’re forced to run like hell and find a hiding spot. (The hardest difficulty takes your radar away, leaving you to rely on what you can see and hear.) If an enemy sees you duck into the shadows, they’ll follow. Music accompanies enemy statuses; every area has a normal soundtrack that changes when at least one enemy is suspicious, and changes again when you’re being chased.
Music, level design, and game systems work in tandem to create an absolutely terrifying experience. I find myself holding my breath when I’m getting the lay of the land, when I’m figuring out the most optimal way to dispatch enemies without alerting others, and especially when I’m being chased. There’s a good reason for that: Manhunt feels real. Other horror games, even some of my favorites, take place in outlandish settings and pit you against outlandish creatures. That’s effective, but I’d argue the realism of Manhunt (you’re a human against other humans who will hunt you down and kill you for fun) make you feel like this could happen to anyone.
Well, not the “sentenced to death, abducted, and forced to star in a snuff movie” part. The “psychopaths with weapons are coming to kill me in places I recognize from reality” part.
Manhunt came under fire for its executions, and to be fair, they’re disturbing. Every weapon has three execution levels that generally range from tame, extreme, to “I need to turn away while this plays out.” In the spirit of sticking to Manhunt’s theme of starring in as brutal a movie as possible, you’re awarded more points for using level-2 and level-3 executions. High ratings also unlock bonus missions, but I never cared about that. The first time I played through Manhunt, and this most recent time, I stuck to the simplest and quickest executions so I could clear areas and move on as quickly and painlessly as possible. Not because I wasn’t enjoying myself, but because the extra time needed to perform more brutal executions took a greater toll on my already-frayed nerves.
Manhunt is a gem. Writing it off for being too graphic does the game a disservice. It’s no different than dismissing the Saw movies as torture porn. This is an extremely well-made game that is as fun to play today as it was in 2003.
Resident Evil 4 (2005, PS2)
I’ve played Resident Evil 4 more times than I can count. I’d have to take a minute (probably more than one) to tally up how many platforms I’ve played it on, too. It’s evergreen. Some elements such as the controls are shaky in 2023, and having to open the menu to switch weapons gets tiresome, but I love everything else about it. Well, almost everything.
Let’s talk about the good, which is 95% of the game. Many RE purists decried RE4 then and now for moving away from survival horror and focusing on action. I disagree. Every Resident Evil sequel beginning with RE2 had more action than the last while sticking to the same formula: static camera angles, tank controls, and decision-making that raised or lowered your odds of survival. Do I eat the last herb in my inventory, or push forward and hope to find more healing items? Do I attempt to dodge one of the zombies in this tight corridor, or mow a few down to make my inevitable return trip through this area easier?
Capcom carried all of that into RE4, and added more strategic combat. Enemies are faster and smarter, so you have to combine your arsenal with mastery of your environment to defeat them. Every decision still counts, and the atmosphere is still thick with tension and a creeping sense of dread. The castle is my favorite of the three regions. It hosts a sweeping variety of tense and strategic encounters, and loads of exploration. It’s such a fantastical and atmospheric place that you’ll want to poke around every corner, and you’re usually rewarded for it.
Some people name the village as their favorite of the three regions. The village is well-made with lots of combat variety, and the environmental design and atmosphere—a backwater village plagued with a virus—is spot on, but it’s also made with a drab color palette. That’s intentional, given the area, and it’s fun to explore, but it doesn’t stand out aesthetically.
The game’s most obvious weak point is the Island, the third of the game’s three regions. If Resident Evil purists have a valid reason to hate RE4, it’s the island’s over-reliance on bombastic set pieces. Virtually every environment set out of doors has at least one, and it grows fatiguing quickly. RE4’s controls weren’t meant for an action game. Action-horror, yes. Pure action, no. But the island’s interiors, all dirt and grime and dark, claustrophobic corridors and rooms, are among the game’s best. Add in the legendary Regenerator enemies and their raspy breathing you can hear long before you see them, and you’ve got a memorable region, if not always for the right reasons.
There are other sore points, too. Near the end of the castle—my favorite region—Leon falls into caverns and has to fight his way back to the surface. The stretch of caves is the weakest part of the castle, second only to the island’s ridiculous bombast. It doesn’t last long relative to the rest of the game, but it’s a slog.
Also: Krauser. Worst RE character ever. (Not including anyone introduced in RE6, which is the worst RE game ever.) Capcom made him because someone over there thought we needed to know who kidnapped Ashley. Krauser did it. Okay. But they went a step further by making him a part of Leon’s past, and we only know that because the infamous knife fight, a quicktime battle that was perhaps the best implementation of a grossly overused mechanic that defined the early 2000s, was a good excuse to vomit exposition all over the player. The actual fight against Krauser isn’t much better. You have to alternate between attacking and pressing combinations of buttons to dodge as prompts appear. This is another instance where RE4 wanted to create an exciting fight, but with controls not suited to that or anything resembling that.
Capcom did a fantastic job with 2023’s RE4 remake. I’ll go so far as to say it’s better than the original. It transplants the spirit of the 2005 game into a modern shell, and either cuts areas that didn’t work or streamlines them in a way that’s fun to play. That said, the original is still a blast, and a game I’ll come back to for as long as I’m cognizant enough to hold a controller.