The x86 PC has been a popular and enduring video game format, outliving every console from the past thirty years.

Owen Thomas

Now THIS is the way shareware should be designed. Owen Thomas' Astro Fire is a shining example of what can be done with a PC when in the hands of a talented programmer with a little common sense. You want computer rendered graphics? They're here, in 256 beautiful colors. You want sound card support? You've got it. You want power-ups, devious enemies, a wide variety of options, voice, and play mechanics with just a hint of heartwarming nostalgia? This is your game. In fact, this is just about ANYONE'S game, since it runs just as quickly on a 386 as it does a Pentium. No, really! I'm serious! And to top things off (rather nicely, I might add), the first episode, jam packed with 25 challenging rounds, is absolutely positively free. The second and third episodes do cost an additional $30, but if they're anything like the first, you'd better believe that it's worth the investment. The only thing I can really complain about is the game's name... Astro Fire? Gee, that's kind of underwhelming, especially since the game itself is so good. Owen should have considered christening it with one of the considerably cooler episode titles, like Heart of the Storm or Into the Fire... oh well. Generic name aside, this is without a doubt the best Asteroids derivitive I've played on my PC. Kurt Dekker could learn a few things from this guy.

Taito, Novalogic

I've always had a place in my heart for Bubble Bobble... it drew me in right from the beginning with its adorable characters and devilishly addictive blend of action and strategy, and I'm not ashamed to admit that it's still one of my all-time favorite NES games. I wasn't sure just how Novalogic's PC translation of the coin-op sleeper would stack up to the NES Bubble Bobble, but was pleasantly surprised to discover that the game was an even better arcade conversion, with cleaner graphics and a more complex soundtrack (with a sound card, of course, which as luck would have it is my 386's ONLY luxury. Without it, you'll be forced to either hum the Bubble Bobble tune to yourself or allow the PC's internal speaker to take over, which is highly unrecommended if you wish to preserve your sanity). All of the classic Bubble Bobble subtleties and play mechanics have been ported perfectly to the PC format, including all the enemies, rounds, and of course, the many, MANY power-ups and bonus items (boots, bombs, crosses, candy, sushi, rainbows, burgers, flowers, fruits... you name it, it's in here). It's a damned near perfect translation, which could be its only flaw since the NES and arcade versions of Bubble Bobble became incredibly frustrating after the 15th round, and the PC version adds to this aggravation by allowing the player just nine continues. Most players won't be able to claw their way through half the game with this annoying restriction, leading me to think that there may be hidden codes for level selection and/or unlimited lives. If there's not, it's rather obvious that Novalogic seriously overestimated the skill of its target audience, adding a little tarnish to what's otherwise a sterling translation of an absolutely brilliant arcade game.

Hudson, Hurricane

And as a sort of companion to Bubble Bobble, we have Dynablaster, another great PC port of a game with a sizable cult following. Don't let the cheesy title fool you... this is an almost exact conversion of the first Bomberman game released for the TurboGrafx16 ("The Turbo what?" Don't you remember... oh, forget it. It's not really that important). Basically, that means that the plot and play mechanics are pretty barebones in comparison to the Genesis and SNES versions of the game, but the execution is still up to your typical Hudson Soft standards. Dynablaster looks, sounds, and plays very much like software for a dedicated game console, and the fact that you don't need a Pentium for this kind of performance makes it that much more appealing. And of course, the ever-popular battle mode is included (it even supports up to four players, although I suspect two must share a keyboard), so it's definately a complete Bomberman game. True Bomberphiles will snatch this up in a second (if just for the novelty of playing a truly good version of the game on their PCs), and to the uninitiated, well, this is as good a place as any to get acquainted with the series. Check it out.

Kurt Dekker

Oh, happy day... it's another miserable shareware port of an arcade classic, designed especially to annoy owners of older PCs with its ludicrous hardware requirements. Nice going, Dekker. I mean, really, Astro Fire creator Owen Thomas designed a terrific Asteroids clone with computer rendered graphics and Soundblaster support that runs like a dream whether you're using a mighty Pentium or a lowly 386... so why can't the lead game designer for an industry giant like Interplay pull off a similar feat with a Galaxian clone that for all intents and purposes is inferior to the same game on the ColecoVision? It's pathetic! OK, so it's a little ridiculous for me to expect the guy to program software for a minority of computer users (although there are a LOT more 386-based PCs floating around than one would expect...), but there's no excuse for wasting needless amounts of RAM and processor speed on a clone of a game that was popular in the late 70's. Anyone who runs DOS games from Windows can tell you that.

RAM and Megahertz wastage aside, I can tell you that Galaxi plays fairly well on a 486 or better, and does outperform other shareware games in the genre, like ChamProgramming's port of the 5200 translation of Galaxian (buuut not their most recent conversion, which is surprisingly good) and the utterly terrible German release Galaga '94. It's inferior to the Gameboy, NES, and ColecoVision versions of Galaxian, however, mostly due to inaccuracies in its audiovisual presentation. The explosions aren't right, the sidebar (already a turnoff in games of this type) is cluttered with a unattractive metallic mess that detracts from the overall look, and Kurt committed the ultimate sin by adding heavy metal music that plays at the beginning of each round. The tune sounds fine (on a fully equipped machine... on a PC with 640K of memory, it stutters like Porky Pig on crystal meth), but it seems like a rather shameless attempt to draw moronic headbangers into what's fundamentally a generic, cheaply produced game. I can almost see it now...

"Huh, huh. Like, this game sucks, or something."
"Hey, wait! It's playing, like, rock music!"
"Yeahyeahyeah! But it sounds like every other heavy metal song known to man!"
"Like, shut up, assmunch!"
"Oooooow! OK, it's cool, it's cool! Hee hee hee hee..."
"Yeah, like, without heavy metal music, the game sucks. But with it, it's, like, cool or something. Huh huh."
"Yeah! Yeahyeahyeah! Hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee..."

You get the point. Anyways, I guess the game's worth downloading, but I sure as hell wouldn't order the registered version. If you want Galaxian, look to Namco, the company responsible for the original game as well as several sterling conversions for the NES and Gameboy.


This was a title which looked promising enough. I mean, with a tactical assassination sim from a well-established company like Eidos how could you go wrong? Well, unfortunately, as with books, TV, movies, or any other form of entertainment, a solid premise and reputable creator do not guarantee an outstanding final product.  Not that Hitman is an awful title, mind you. It’s just not nearly as good as it should be, which is a shame.

The game’s opening starts off cheesy as hell, with your title character awakening in some sort of psychiatric hospital which conveniently houses a training facility for the use of knives, piano wire, and firearms. All the while a benevolent and omniscient off-screen narrator (or perhaps hallucinatory voice) gives encouragement to our protagonist, a dapper, lean, rather non-descript bald man with a barcode tattooed on the back of his head. Our operative must now break out of the institution and begin his arduous career against whomever the agency deems fit for extermination. Ah, the life of a video game action star!

Each mission requires careful plotting of the terrain, choice of weapon(s) and equipment, and usually a lot of trial and error before the successful execution(s) can be executed. A silenced 9mm Beretta is ideal for completing one mission, but a .45, Desert Eagle, sniper rifle, or garrote may be a better choice for another.  Whatever you choose to bring along will cost you money, which is credited to your account upon completion of each assignment.  Credits are deducted for police and unnecessary civilian casualties. Screw up your job, kill too many innocents, or get killed before arriving at your rendezvous and it’s back to the drawing board.

Locales in Hitman include such destinations as Hong Kong, Bucharest, Columbia, and Rotterdam. Graphics are well done throughout the whole game. Gone are the days in which polygonal humans looked as if they were made out of Lego building blocks. Buildings, characters, backgrounds, and items all look very impressive. Sounds are nicely done as well, but the voice acting and dialog are often campy or downright ludicrous. But then, every game utilizing voice actors is guilty of this, so I shouldn’t be so critical.

Gameplay, however, is not as polished. Not too much stuff is interactive. Usually only the bare minimum of what is required to complete a level. For example, almost any item or character that seems to be out of place will inevitably play an important part in the overall picture. Well… usually. I say usually because one positive aspect of Hitman is that there is often more than one way to carry out an assignment. Enemy A.I. is uneven in that some enemies know right away something’s wrong while others seem to take forever to catch on. Dressing in your enemies’ clothes will instantly make you pass for whatever character you’ve just iced, regardless of your resemblance (or lack thereof) to that person. Fortunately, 90% of the characters you whack wear your size and nobody seems to think it’s fishy that a bald, white man is attempting to pass himself off as a Chinese Triad or Columbian soldier. And controls involving such rudimentary actions as pressing an elevator button or descending a ladder could DEFINITELY be more user friendly. Most missions are extremely complicated, and it’s more than a little frustrating that you cannot save during a game, but must start over from the beginning or a predetermined area within the level.

Hitman is a game I disliked at first, then grew to find somewhat entertaining. It certainly involves more problem solving elements than one might expect. This aspect, like the game itself, is both good and bad. Perhaps the sequel will rectify some of the areas in which the original is lacking. Until then, I have to give this one a moderately less than favorable assessment.

Take 2 Interactive, 3D Realms, Remedy
Third-Person Shooter

Pros: "Bullet Time," graphic novel-style cinemas, "winking" references towards the end, excellent plot, never gets too frustrating
Cons: Prologues to parts 2 and 3 seem too labyrinthine.

Every once in a while, a game comes along that revolutionizes gaming as a whole. Max Payne was one of those games. With its "Bullet Time" feature, dynamic difficulty, gripping plot and perfect blend of realism, right down to individual modeling of bullets (as opposed to the classic "hit-scan" method of light-speed bullets), the game was hailed by just about everybody. Many have looked at it as the inspiration for Namco's game "Dead to Rights" for home consoles, which I guess qualifies as "praise from Caesar" for this game.

At the risk of simply saying what everybody else is (and this is probably the first "really big" game I've reviewed on this site), I'd like to give my $0.02. First, I'll start off with the basic plot, which seems to be the "circular" style of beginning with the end and then skipping right back to the start.

In the start, Max is standing atop the building of Aesir Corporation, a powerful pharmaceutical firm, gun in hand, as seemingly every cop in New York comes to apprehend him. In this moment, he reflects back on the events that brought him to this point, starting three years prior...

Max was in the NYPD, with a loving wife and baby daughter across the bridge in New Jersey. However, one day, all that was taken from him by a bunch of drug-addled psychopaths. The word "Valkyr" was graffitied on the inside of his house. The next day, he joined the Drug Enforcement Agency, eventually going undercover in one of the seediest mob families in the city, to find and destroy the source of this "Valkyr."

As he progresses through his quest, he finds himself on the wrong end of a city-wide manhunt, both by the NYPD and the mob. The plot has everything from the worst blizzard in history to crooked cops to secret societies to massive corporations continuing cancelled government projects while using mob ties to keep their business secure. And all the while, the action is seen through real-time cinemas and graphic novel-style cutscenes.

The gameplay is much like any third-person game, with the action being seen from right behind your character. However, the biggest innovation is bullet time. Like the Matrix's crucial scenes, one can slow the action to a crawl at critical moments, allowing you to better focus. The feature was actually well-implemented, neither being "gimmicky and useless" nor "game-breaking and overpowerful," as you only use it for a limited time, and you can refill it by killing enemies.

The game is just realistic enough--if you make a big commotion, you'll be swarmed by enemies, bullets travel in real time, and being next to a big explosion will kill you in short order. However, the game seems to have some of its "rules" governed by action films--certain characters can take more gunfire than others, and the action pauses when a sniper rifle is fired in zoom mode, as the bullet takes flight into its destination.

The sound is excellent in this game. From the voice acting to the ambience of televisions and radios, the audio atmosphere in this game is rich and well-done. The music is quite understated, which is just as well, since while you're going through an area, you don't want music blaring through your ears.

Finally, the names are actually pretty good in this game. From the main character's name to the names of many of the characters, there are numerous puns and references to Norse mythology to keep some folks amused.

Also, if you beat the game, you can unlock higher difficulties and a special mode where you have to get through the level in a set amount of time, gaining time as you kill enemies.

The only complaint I have about the game is the nature of the prologues of the last two parts. They seemed too maze-like, twisting and turning with no end in sight at times.

In short, this is one of those great games that come up far too seldomly.

James Rowan

Look... if you're a discriminating fan of this wildly successful sequal to Pac-Man, you've got two choices. You can either plunk a quarter into a Ms. Pac-Man machine and enjoy the game for a whopping fifteen minutes, or invest that quarter in a floppy disk, take it down to a PC clone connected to the Internet, and download Ms. Pac-Pc, a freeware game you can keep for the rest of your life. This game is a PERFECT translation of the Namco coin-op, period. Aside from new patterns and a somewhat ugly banana (by the way, is it just a coincidence that it's the most valuable target in a game with a female star? I don't think so...), I don't think there's a single thing about the game that even the legendary Ken Uston could fault. I'm not terribly fond of the rather extravagant system requirements (I'm sorry, but a 386 should be more than enough to handle a Pac-Man clone, no matter how good that clone may be), but if you own a 486 or better with a 16-bit sound card, there's no reason this shouldn't take up permanent residence on your hard drive. It's so sinfully good that I wouldn't be surprised if the CEO of Namco beat a path to James' door with a copy of Ms. Pac-PC in one hand and a subpeona in the other...

[Editor's Note: If you or someone you know owns a Super Pac-Man machine, uh, my condolences. It just so happens that I recently found an SPM coin-op, and after three plays it became abundantly clear that it didn't do my childhood memories of the game justice ("Then why did you waste your time designing 'Super Pac-Mon'?" Would you be quiet!? Geez...). So don't bother James for an exact translation, 'cuz he's got better things to do, like Jr. Pac-PC (we can only hope...)]

Derek Yu

It was distressingly common in the NES days to judge a game by the pictures on the back of the box, only to come home and get an entirely different (and often worse) experience than what those tiny snapshots had suggested.  The combination of larger-than-life childhood expectations and false advertising sold dozens of games which had no business being on store shelves, let alone in the hands of disappointed consumers.  Remember how Deadly Towers and Arkista's Ring seemed like they could take the place of Link's Adventure as the true successors to The Legend of Zelda?  Remember how freaky cool Abadox and Zombie Nation looked, with their tangled masses of intestines and gigantic exploding buildings?  Ever got the impression that The Adventures of Bayou Billy would be the ultimate NES game with its three distinct styles of gameplay and those famous spit-shined Konami graphics?  Well, to paraphrase a frequently uttered line from a more recent video game, the box was a lie.  Yes, those pictures were from the actual games, but they were presented in a way that made you think you were getting a lot more for your money than the designers actually bothered to give you.

Such was the case with Spellunker, the old Broderbund computer game ported to the NES by Irem.  The snapshots on the back of the box suggested a sprawling adventure with deep play mechanics and dozens of hidden areas to discover.  What was inside the box was less thrilling... a subterranian Donkey Kong knock-off with the wimpiest protagonist this side of a Woody Allen movie.  Step off the third rung of a ladder, and you'd die.  Get splashed with the steam from a geyser, and you'd die.  Get too close to a dead canary?  That's right, it's curtains for you!  The hero who was pathetic beyond all reason made this already linear game feel even more stiff and rigid.  There was no room for exploration and no chance to experiment in Spelunker... you either went through the game exactly as its designer Tim Martin intended, or you died trying.  Frequently.

Spelunky is pixel artist Derek Yu's valiant attempt to right past wrongs and finally give players the game they were expecting Spellunker to be.  It has many of the elements of the venerable Broderbund computer release, from basic staples like bombs and ropes to that terrifying ghost that would chase you to the ends of the earth if you dragged your feet while searching for the exit.  However, while Spellunker dragged you through a predetermined path, Spelunky drops your red-nosed explorer into randomly generated caverns, stocked with untold riches and unspeakable horrors.  There's no wrong way to reach the exit at the bottom of the screen, and if you stumble into a dead end, you can always light a bomb to blast a hole through the floor or use a rope to reach a ledge.

Derek Yu's got all the fundamentals covered in Spelunky, although the game shines more brightly in some areas than others.  The graphics bridge the gap between the 8 and 16-bit eras, with simply drawn characters and lushly colored environments that bring back memories of Daisuke Amaya's instant classic Cave Story.  The control takes a bit of adjustment thanks to a slightly flighty main character and an overabundance of buttons... seriously, eight is way more than enough for a remake of a game that dates back to the early 1980s!  However, you'll get used to it with a little practice and the proper key configuration.  It's much harder to put up with the soundtrack, which is full of shrill chip tunes that'll leave you scrambling for the volume knob on your speakers.

What makes Spelunky really work is the open-ended design, along with the improvisation that it invites.  There are countless opportunities to color outside the lines and test the boundaries of the game's engine.  Gold veins line the walls and floors of the cave... do a little excavation with a well-placed bomb and you'll be rewarded with a shower of glistening nuggets!  Damsels in distress eagerly await your rescue, but in an age of gender equality, there's absolutely nothing wrong with making them earn their keep by using them to trigger traps or flush out spiders.  Then there are the shops... it's a pain to actually buy items thanks to the eight button control scheme, but oh so much fun to play mind games with the shopkeeper.  Just remember that he tends to hold a grudge...

It's common practice for homebrew game designers to reinvent the wheel and make games based on a winning formula... perhaps too common, if the avalanche of dual stick shooters on Xbox Community Games is any indication.  However, it takes guts to resurrect a game that didn't work in its original form, and fix the issues that kept it from reaching its full potential.  Let's hope that other indie developers will follow in Derek Yu's footsteps and turn near-misses from the 1980s into the smash hits of today.


It's hard to say for sure what I think about this shareware shooter.  You're certainly not out anything by downloading it, and it's got a really innovative power up system along with beautiful polygonal graphics.  However, it's got a handful of flaws, which surprisingly enough include the weapon system and graphics.

Let me explain.  VSys Gaiden has one of the most unique power up systems you'll ever find in a shooter, but the designers tried so hard to differentiate it from other games in the genre that they wound up making it much too complicated.  The game's manual, written in Japanese, doesn't help matters much... you'll end up having to figure things out through trial and error, and it will probably take a few games before everything starts to fall into place.

Your ship is given a power gauge like the one in Gradius, but there are a lot of additional factors that make things a lot more confusing than necessary.  Try to follow this... you've got two meters that work in tandem with the power gauge.  The first is raised by collecting power-ups, but the second fills on its own, if you can resist the temptation to fire.  Firing lowers the second meter, which prevents you from powering up your ship.  You can adjust the power of your shots, but the more powerful you make them, the more quickly the second meter drains.  Another button activates the power ups, but you can only get them once both meters are sufficiently charged.  Pressing the power up button also fires a series of heat-seeking lasers which destroy enemies on contact.  Believe it or not, it gets even more complex from there... filling your meters to the top allows you to evolve your ship, giving you an entirely new selection of power ups.  Feel free to scratch your head and mutter, "Wha...?" at this point. I know I did.

Powering up your ship may be ludicrously complicated, but the graphics are anything but.  Don't get me wrong... they're quite pretty, but all those vibrant explosions and transparent clouds don't hide the fact that the backgrounds are rather plain and nondescript.  You'll skim over the endless surface of an ocean for the entire duration of the game, and there's not a single island or heavily armed battleship to break up the monotony.  Even the enemies are repetitive... you'll face off against fleets of tiny ships and what appear to be large jet engines.  The vast majority of these foes fly onscreen, fire a couple of bullets at you, and retreat.  This continues for eight rounds until you meet the first (and only) boss in Vsys Gaiden, a flame spirit which covers the screen with blazing streams of fire.  It's a challenging battle, but once it's over, the game just ends.  Maybe it's unfinished, and maybe this is a demo, but neither the game itself or the manual (what little I can understand of it) confirm this.

Vsys Gaiden is really quite impressive for a game designed by a hobbyist, but there are even better shareware titles out there... Rally Raid in particular looks almost as nice and is much more logically designed.  Still, it can't hurt to download both titles.  You can find them, and a whole lot of other shooters, at Emudek....


tech specs


80386-Intel Core 2








piezo-32-bit card




320x240 to high-def


4 to millions




N/A to millions/sec

best games

Bubble Bobble
Cave Story
Max Payne
Typhoon 2001

worst games

Bad Day L.A.
Big Rigs: Over the Road
Mega Man (Hi-Tech)
Rise of the Robots