It’s funny how timing works out in this game reviewing business. You see, not long back, I was moved to pen about the last 30 years of Blizzard Entertainment, and then hot on the heels of me thinking, for the first time in a long time, about games from that era, Blizzard Entertainment announced a collection of some of the games I was talking about. The Blizzard Arcade Collection features The Lost Vikings, Rock N Roll Racing and Blackthorne, and as I have fond memories of two of those games, I was certainly onboard to try and comment on this nostalgia arousing product. So come with me to the 1990’s, when I was a much younger man with a lot less grey hair, to see if the games hold up just as well today.
I think possibly the best way for this to work is if I review each of the components first, in chronological order, and then wrap things up at the end.
First up is The Lost Vikings, which initially saw the light of day back on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System way back in 1991. In 1991, as I touched on in my history piece, I was an 18 year old student with a SNES, and as such bought this game on release – at the time it was unlike anything I’d played before. The story of the game is that three Vikings are kidnapped by aliens, the Tomator who are trying to find exhibits for their intergalactic zoo, and so before any probing can take place, they resolve to escape. The Vikings in question all have different skills and abilities, and it’s only by using the right character at the right time that they can ever hope to escape.
The Vikings are, in no particular order, Erik the Swift, who can run and jump; Baelog the Fierce, who is the only armed Viking tooled up with a sword and bow, and finally Olaf the Stout whose Shield can not only block any hits, but can also be used to glide around the levels if it’s held above his head. Erik also has a nifty line in charging headbutts, and can take down walls, Baelog’s bow can be used to hit switches that are out of reach, and Olaf is strong enough to work as a platform for the other Vikings to stand on. So, in this way, the three Vikings must link up and use their powers to help each other. And this is barely scratching the surface, as the depth on display is impressive, especially when you consider that this was Silicon and Synapse’s (as Blizzard was called back in the day) first console game. Doubly so given the limited power of those early machines.
The visuals look exactly as I remember them and in fact The Lost Vikings plays exactly as I remember – this has been like a nice warm bubble bath of nostalgia. Also included though are three versions of The Lost Vikings: the original SNES version, the version that was released on the Sega Mega Drive, which is slightly different, and the so-called definitive version; something which is a bit of a mash-up of the other two, with added features like three player co-op. Yes, there was co-op in the older versions, but it was limited to just two players. Long story short, this is as perfect a port of a game from my memory as we are likely to get, with it working really well.
Rock N Roll Racing is another game that I played in my youth, this time back in 1993. If you can imagine a group of hard working students, sitting around at the end of the day, after some liquid refreshment had been consumed at the Student’s Union, what better way to round off the day than by playing a racing combat game featuring some of the finest licensed music? Yes, shooting your friends to the strains of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid and winning a race while Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild plays are truly the things memories are made of. It didn’t matter that Mario Kart was a much better racing game; Rock N Roll Racing had the attitude that made up for the lack of the ultimate polish that Nintendo’s title had, and still remains a treasured part of my gaming history.
However, these days, it isn’t as good as I remember, and that’s largely down to the controls. You see, the only way to get round some of the tighter turns in this racer is to slide, and in a more grown up and, importantly, more sober state, the slide mechanics come across as, well, not very good. The shooting and driving bits are still fun, but winning a race seems to be more by luck than judgement these days. The thrill is still there too however, and introducing my 10 year old son to the multiplayer has been a nice option to have, almost handing on the gaming torch moment.
Honestly though, Rock N Roll Racing is all about the music. I don’t remember hearing licensed music in a game before this, so the impact is still there. Racing, shooting, upgrading your chosen chariot, again in three versions as with The Lost Vikings, ensures that there is a lot of fun still to be had here. The game looks the same as it did, but the sense of speed is still very impressive to this day, so much so that learning of tracks is vital.
The final game in the collection is Blackthorne; a game I hadn’t played previously so you’ll be glad to know that there are no more rambling reminiscences.
In 1994, Blackthorne told an epic tale of Kyle, crown prince of Tuul, who was sent away as his father was killed to become a man, and then come back and save the world. It appears Kyle was sent to Earth, as when he is brought back to Tuul, he is carrying a mean shotgun and must now dispense buckshot-based justice to all who stand in his way.
Now, playing this game for the first time in 2021, it feels a little, shall we say, clunky to say the least, and with no rose-tinted glasses to hide the rough edges, I have to admit that this is my least favourite of the three games. There is a cool “dodge into the background” move that both Kyle and the enemies can pull off, defeating foes relies on pinpoint timing in order to pop out and shoot, and gunfights devolve very quickly into a game of peek-a-boo. Picking up bombs from fallen foes allows Kyle, or Blackthorne, to blow walls up, and this means there are various routes through the levels. While the game is very much a product of its time, there is fun to be had here. I have to admit, slowing my brain down to the pace that the game runs at was a challenge, as Kyle refuses to be hurried, whether it be scaling a ledge or climbing a ladder, and the game never feels fast, or indeed furious. Again with the three versions of the game in place through the Blizzard Arcade Collection, from the SNES, Mega Drive and definitive edition, there’s a good amount of gameplay to go at. Just be known that getting to grips with the controls is a bit of a test.
In fact, the controls, especially in the SNES versions of the games, are a bit of an issue, full stop. When you are instructed, for example, in The Lost Vikings to press Y to fire an arrow, what the game actually means is to press X to fire an arrow, as the instructions have the Nintendo pad in mind. Other than that though things are just about as good now as they were when they first came out, and I have really enjoyed getting reacquainted with old friends, and have enjoyed hanging out with Blackthorne.
But, in a rare treat, it’s not just the games that are included in this release as there is a virtual treasure trove of instruction manuals, adverts and interviews with the good folk who were instrumental in creating the games, much like in the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection that released in 2019, or to a similar extent, that of Rare Replay. These little behind the scenes glimpses really help to flesh out the history of, not just the games, but Blizzard as an entity.
In conclusion then and it has to be said that the Blizzard Arcade Collection on Xbox is a great trip down memory lane for us older gamers, and almost a time capsule waiting to be unearthed by younger players. Seeing where Blizzard has come from is fascinating, and with three games from the days when playability was more important than whizz bang graphics, maybe it’s good that we get the chance to slow down and enjoy life once in a while.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to save Olaf!