Comic Review: Mighty Captain Marvel #0

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Mighty Captain Marvel #0 (Marvel Comics)

Margaret Stohl (writer), Emilio Laiso and Ramon Rosanas (artists). Covers by Elizabeth Torque, Ian Herring, Dave Johnson, Phil Noto, Khoi Pham and Ramon Rosanas.

This prelude to the new Captain Marvel ongoing series deals with the ramifications of last year’s Civil War II, as Carol Danvers tries to keep from falling to pieces under the mounting pressure that comes from being both the world’s premiere superhero, and its first line of defence against all manner of interplanetary threats. As written by Margaret Stohl (a bestselling novelist and newcomer to the world of comic books), Danvers is a complex heroine, who comes into this series with some major emotional baggage. The weight she bears comes not just from her duties as commander of the Alpha Flight program, but also her well-deserved feelings of guilt and (quite literal) alienation – much of which is a result of Civil War II.

Like Marvel Comics’ first Civil War event from a decade ago, Civil War II used superhero battles to explore a larger philosophical theme. Whereas the first Civil War looked at the post-9/11-topical issue of civil liberties versus national security, Civil War II dealt with the more abstract conflict between the concepts of predestination and free will. Both Civil War stories attempted to present balanced arguments on both sides of their respective conflicts, but both also had a side that was generally accepted as the de facto antagonists – Iron Man’s quasi-fascist regime in the first Civil War, and Carol’s Minority Report-inspired Pre-Crime Avengers in Civil War II. Thus, as with the post-Civil War Iron Man books, we now have the problem of a high-profile series starring a character that is very much responsible for some extremely morally questionable actions, including the deaths of several beloved heroes.

In recent years, Captain Marvel has become a figurehead for a new wave of comic book feminism, both in terms of the character herself and the creative teams behind her series. This issue sets the tone for Mighty Captain Marvel by juxtaposing her past struggle to establish herself as a preeminent figure in the male-dominated worlds of the U.S. Air Force and NASA with her more recent activities as Captain Marvel. The concept is sound, but the execution rings false – it seems like a way to excuse, or even romanticise a streak of fascism that crept into the character during the Civil War II story, by hand-waving it away as just another fight against the evil patriarchy. In particular, there’s a recurring motif to this issue, which claims that Captain Marvel “doesn’t fly away from everyone else, she flies for them” – and for me at least, that simply doesn’t work. I appreciate the attempt to show how Carol is uncomfortable with being treated as a rock star-type-idol, and how Stohl tries to ground her larger-than-life story with relatable details like her love of the Boston Red Sox. The problem is, while Carol herself is conflicted, the story itself treats her as being more unassailable, as if it’s saying that sure, she’s made some mistakes, but she’s still the Mighty Captain Marvel, beloved hero to all, right?

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I’m not so sure. There remains a huge dissonance that comes from treating Captain Marvel as an A-list hero, while paying minimal lip-service to the fact that because of her, two Avengers are dead, and one was beaten into a coma. If this is a story about Carol Danvers finding redemption by learning to forgive herself, I’m not sure I can get behind that – I’m not even sure I believe she should be forgiven, either by the readers or by the in-universe world at large. Why would her fellow heroes ever trust her again? Why should her fans be sympathetic to a fate she absolutely brought on herself?

Then again, given that Civil War II was a critical and financial flop, it’s quite possible that no one really cares about any of this except me. In which case, hey, here’s a book starring a strong female lead, which features awesome artwork, good pacing, and some snappy dialogue. If you’re willing to ignore the inherent moral implications related to the larger Marvel Universe (or just don’t care, which is certainly valid), this gets an easy recommendation. Personally, I want to give this series another few issues before I decided whether or not I’m ready to accept Carol Danvers as a hero again.

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SNES Review – NHL ’94

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Let me take you back the magical age I like to call October 1993. In Canada, Jean Chrétien’s Liberal party swept into power, crushing the incumbent Progressive Conservative Party. The death of President Melchior Ndadaye sparked the Burundi Civil War, which would wage on for twelve years. And… uh… the fat kid from Two and a Half Men was born?

…Okay, I’ve got nothing. Apparently, October 1993 was a pretty boring month. But, fatefully, it was also the month that saw the release of one of the greatest sports games of all time, NHL ’94. The third game in the NHL’s official videogame franchise (following NHL Hockey and NHLPA Hockey ’93), NHL ’94 provided gamers a hockey experience that was every bit as revolutionary as it was just plain old fun.

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  The key to NHL ‘94’s success was how its wealth of options and play-styles allowed it to appeal to nearly any type of gamer. Those who were looking for a casual or arcade-style experience could turn on the console and get to the first drop of the puck within seconds. For others seeking a more in-depth experience, the game also provided the option of setting up entire seasons, complete with customizable rosters, and tracked team and player stats.

Building on the tried-and-true game engine established in the series’ previous two games, NHL ’94 introduced a ton of new features, including penalty shots, shoot outs, automatic line changes, and the ability to use either a player- or computer-controlled goalie. Better yet, all of these new features were completely optional to use, and easy to toggle on or off before each game, allowing gamers to set up exactly the type of game they wanted to play. NHL ’94 also greatly improved what you could do on the ice, thanks to the addition of flip-passes, one-timer quick shots, and all-around more polished controls. Fitting the new focus on technical skills, one element that was taken out from previous games was the ability to get into fights – thankfully though, you retain the ability to crush your opponents with brutal body checks, so your inner Tie Domi will still be satisfied.

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Apart from game-play, one of the most satisfying things about NHL ’94 has to be the sound. The swish of your skates as your team flies down the ice, the sharp crack of a slap-shot, the bone-crunching impact of a blatant cross check – I play with penalties turned off, my rink is like the Thunder Dome – it’s all just so wonderfully satisfying. Each team even has its own organ music accurate to their actual, real-life themes, in just another example of the exceptional attention to detail that made this game so great.

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Long before the NHL-Year-Goes-Here video game franchise had overstayed its welcome, before publisher/co-developer Electronic Arts was considered the corporate equivalent of the Antichrist, and at a time when the Toronto Maple Leafs somehow didn’t completely suck, NHL ’94 blew gamers away – and it only takes a few minutes of play to see that it completely holds up in 2015, as one of the best sports games of all time, an absolute must-have for SNES-loving hockey fans.

FINAL SCORE – 9.5/10

SNES Review – The 7th Saga

Blah blah blah, Super Nintendo review… let’s get straight to it. This time around, we’re looking at the 1993 RPG, The 7th Saga.

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  Released in Japan under the title “Elnard” (which sounds like the worst luchador ever), The 7th Saga was developed by Produce (best known for the Super Bomberman series), and published by RPG stalwarts Enix. The game is set in the fantasy world of Ticondera, where king Lemele has hit the ripe old age of one hundred, and is finally considering retirement. To choose a worthy heir, Lemele summons the seven greatest champions of the realm and sends them out on a quest to recover seven lost runes. Whichever hero manages to gather all seven Dragon Balls mystical runes will summon a wish dragon become the new king (or queen) of Ticondera.

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  See? Told you.

As the game starts, you get to choose one of the champions to take control of. There are the usual fantasy tropes of the human knight and cleric, dwarf warrior and elven spellcaster (the latter being the only playable female character), but there are a few cool wildcards thrown in for good measure, including a flame-throwing alien, and an unapologetically evil demon. I went with the five thousand-year old steam-punk robot, because who doesn’t love robots.

John Connor, that’s who.

You and the other six heroes – using that term loosely when it comes to the would-be-world conquering demon – are then summarily chucked out into the wilderness to start your search for the runes. As the game progresses, you’ll cross your rivals’ paths many times, forging alliances with some, battling others, and all the while trying to suss out the traitor who’s responsible for a bounty hunter nipping at your heels.

To aid you in your quest, Lemele equips you with a special crystal ball, which makes up one of the game’s more unique features. Whenever you’re outside the safe haven of a town, stomping around the overworld map like a meandering Renaissance Faire Godzilla, the crystal ball acts as a radar, tracking nearby locations, enemies and treasures. In theory, this should allow you to avoid wearisome random encounters, in a mechanic similar to the one used in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. In practice, however, the enemy blips come so fast and furious, moving erratically but also somehow zoning right in on you, that they’re all but impossible to escape. You do get to see them coming, but when you’re miles away from town with no health potions, that might just be adding insult to injury.

The combat system is about as traditional and straight-forward as RPGs get. Each round of turn-based combat allows you to either attack, defend, cast a spell, use an item, or make a vain attempt to run for your life. There are a few odd quirks to get the hang of – for instance, you’re strongly encouraged to use Defend on your first turn, as it both reduces the damage you receive, and buffs your attacks for the next few rounds. Against multiple enemies, you automatically target whoever hit you last, which can be a bit annoying if you’re trying to burn down the biggest threat first. And strangely, whenever a fight finishes, instead of saying “You Won”, or some derivation of that, the game goes with “X Enemy Lost”, which seems oddly negative.

Although the overworld is far from spectacular, there’s a very cool effect whenever you enter a battle, where the screen spins and shifts from full-overhead to three-quarter perspectives, showing off the Super Nintendo’s much-vaunted ~Mode 7 Graphics!~ to their fullest. Where the game really shines graphically is the enemy sprites – the designs are fantastically creepy, even oddly gruesome at times, with detail way beyond what you’d expect to see from a game made in 1993.

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The sound is really excellent too, especially the battle music, which has a great high-energy synthesized drum-line to keep things feeling fast-paced. The sound effects are good, although my robot’s clanging footsteps grew irritating pretty quickly, something none of the other character classes have to deal with. Such are the sacrifices one pays for siding with Skynet, I suppose.

One big issue with this game is its difficulty curve, which can be downright brutal. The differences between Elnard and The 7th Saga go further than some awkwardly translated dialogue and inexplicable PC names (I don’t know what those ghosts in the early dungeons were supposed to be, but they sure as hell weren’t chimeras). For the American version of the game, the playable character’s stats were significantly reduced, while enemy monsters have apparently been hitting the gym. The game also has its fair share of “screw you” enemies, starting with the first boss, a demonic ghost dog that’s about five levels too tough for you when you first encounter it – although once you die to fido once, you can find an item that can kill him instantly in the rematch, so cheapness goes both ways on that one. Not long after, you’ll come across a treasure chest in a tunnel, but unlike all the other harmless chests you’ve seen so far, this one turns out to be a ridiculously overpowered monster, who managed to annihilate my poor robot in a single hit.

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The trade off to all of this is that The 7th Saga fully expects you to die, and likely die a lot. Unlike many RPGs, where death equals a game over screen, in this game you’re merely knocked out, and some unseen hand drags you off to the medieval equivalent of a Pokémon Center to stitch your dumb ass back together. Dying to a monster will cost you half your gold, but the game makes it clear early on that you can bypass that penalty by using your spare cash to buy gems, which can be sold back for the same cost you paid for them. The most feasible way to get through the hordes of enemies is to hang back and grind out levels, which naturally is a pain in the ass. I refuse to be defeated by tedium though – bitch, I play World of Warcraft, your drudgery means nothing to me. There’s a big problem with that strategy though – it’s a moot point as soon as you have to fight one of your rivals, because not only are they always the same level as you, they have stats equivalent to the Japanese (pre-nerf) version of your character, meaning you’ll always be at a huge disadvantage.

Despite its sometimes maddening difficulty, The 7th Saga is still a very fun game, with surprising depth to the story – if you can get past the basic fantasy fetch-quest set up, there’s a big plot twist half-way through the game, and the narrative starts going the way of Shadow of the Colossus. This is a game that exceeded my expectations in almost every way – even if it did make me want to throw my controller across the room a few times.

Final Score – 8.5/10

SNES Review – Battle Blaze

Quick, think of an iconic early Nineties fighting game for the Super Nintendo!

No doubt, Battle Blaze was the first game to leap to mind. Assuming, that is, that you’ve never heard of Street Fighter II… or Mortal Kombat… or Killer Instinct… or Clay Fighter… or Ballz 3D…

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Battle Blaze is an arcade port developed in Aicom and Electronics Applications, which had its American release in early 1994. The story is basically Mortal Kombat by way of Ator the Invincible – in the land of Virg, a tournament is set to determine who will become the new king of the realms (the underappreciated government form known as the Gladiatocracy). The tournament’s integrity is quickly threatened by Autarch, a demon with designs for world domination (and a kicking red and purple color scheme), who decides to rig the affair by possessing each of the six combatants. Only the mightiest among them, Durill, succeeds in fighting off his demonic assailant… then promptly drops dead, leaving his son Kerrel to take seek vengeance and take up his father’s sword fighting-based political career.

There are two play styles available in Battle Blaze – “The Hero,” which is essentially story-mode, and “The Battle,” which doubles as an exhibition mode and a multiplayer option. In “The Hero,” you’re stuck playing as Kerrel, a Kevin Sorbo-looking bohunk with a huge honking broadsword. Despite his chiselled physique and impressive armaments, Kerrel is actually rather underwhelming as playable character, arguably the worst character on the game’s roster. If you ever want to see the game’s final boss (or more than one background) though, you better get used to him. Part one of “The Hero” sees you battling through the tournament’s other champions: Adrick, a doppleganger of Fire Emblem’s Marth, but with oversized shoulder pads and scrawny chicken legs; Teysa, the knife-wielding token female character; Lord Gustoff, a half-orc with the mannerisms of Hulk Hogan; and the unfortunately named Shnouzer the Wolfman. Once you’ve laid waste to your rivals, it’s on to Autarch himself, who can turn his arms into spikes like the T-1000, and hits like a damned truck.

“The Battle” lets you fight through a five-opponent gauntlet, and offers both solo and two-player modes. This time around, Autarch is replaced by the missing sixth entrant in the tournament, Kerrel’s twin brother Lang… but since no one could be arsed to design another character, Lang is just Kerrel with a pallet swap, and the exact same move set.

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As you would expect for a port of a 1992 arcade game, Battle Blaze’s combat is incredibly simple by SNES standards, employing the use of just two buttons (plus the D-Pad). Y lets you attack, B lets you jump, or, when ducking, to sweep the leg, Daniel-San. Combined with a basic block you throw up when retreating, the system allows for streamlined, tactical combat – or that’s the theory, anyway. In practice, attempting to fight strategically just got me my ass handed to me by the surprisingly brutal enemy AI. After suffering several humiliating defeats, I fell back on the lessons I learned from fighting Shao Kahn in Mortal Kombat 9 – pick a move, and spam the bejesus out of it. I’ve always said, If you can’t fight fair, you might as well cheat like a motherfucker.

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Oh, bite me.

In this case, I figured out pretty quickly that by using Teysa’s low-damaging sweep attack to repeatedly kick at my opponent’s ankles, I could stun-lock most of them and chip away at their health, bit by bit. My devious strategy let me breeze through four straight opponents… and then I ran up against Gustoff, whose superior strength (and well-executed belly-to-belly suplexes) broke through my otherwise impenetrable wall of shin-kicking.

Despite its many shortcomings, Battle Blaze was briefly entertaining. The graphics are decent for an early Nineties game, and the music is actually quite good (though in “The Battle”, instead of cycling through the playlist, you’re stuck listening to the same track over and over). There’s just not that much to do – each character has about four moves to learn, and since each mode features just five fights from beginning to end, you’d have to imagine that most players would grow bored quickly. If it weren’t for the demonic overtones and inordinately challenging difficulty, this could have almost been marketed as a very basic introductory fighting game for players new to the genre. As it stands, Battle Blaze was doomed from the outset – length production delays meant that by the time it saw the light of day on American consoles, Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat had already come and gone, transforming the entire 2D fighting genre, and leaving Battle Blaze dead in the water.

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Final Score – 6/10

SNES Review – Ka-Blooey

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 Ka-Blooey began its life as Bombuzal, a puzzle game originally released in 1988 for the Amiga, Atari ST and Commodore 64. Developed by the British studio Image Works, Bombuzal was the brainchild of Tony Crowther, one of the C64’s most beloved game designers. The Super Famicon version of Bombuzal was actually one of the system’s earliest games, released less than two weeks after the SFC’s late 1990 shipping date. Though the game took a further two years to reach the North American market (under the new title Ka-Blooey), it was still one of a very small number of puzzle games available for the system, and stood a good chance of carving out its own little niche in gaming history. So why have you never heard of it?

I blame this guy.

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Words cannot express the irrational hatred I have towards that weird little goober. I hate his walk cycle, I hate the sounds he makes, I hate his stupid, stupid face. He looks like the bastard offspring of the Grimace and My Pet Monster. I have no idea what inspired such an awful design – he looks the same way in the C64-era Bombuzal games too, despite cover art for those games that depicts a big-headed but decidedly human dude with a Mohawk and a jetpack. Having done a little research (that involved googling “terrible blue mascots”), my working theory is now that someone close to Crowther went to Xavier University in Cincinnati, because the Ka-Blooey beastie looks suspiciously like their mascot The Blue Blob.

For all we know, it might well be a heavily weaponized Blue Blob running around in Ka-Blooey – the game offers no story, no plot, no direction other than clear this board of bombs, avoid dying, move on to the next one. All the while, an endless loop of 16-bit funk drones on, complete with a ricka-ricka-remix of the game’s solitary voice clip, which endlessly encourages you to “Get Ready!” The music never stops – it plays through the pause screen, it loops back to the start if you beat a level or just take too long to finish the one you’re on. The only brief respite comes in the form of the game’s sound effects – all four of them. Blow up a bomb, bounce a bomb like a ball – ill advised, but go with it – activate a teleporter, fall to your death. Then back to the top, with another hearty “Get Ready!” It’s an endless cartoon purgatory, one that will leave you wishing for the sweet merciful release of death.

Stripping aside the grating aesthetics, there is the hint of a good puzzle game at Ka-Blooey’s core, but the execution is completely flawed. The movement is slow, which makes even simple levels seem tedious. The default field of view is overly limited and set at an awkward isometric angle, requiring you to constantly toggle between an overhead map in the pause menu (and a redundant smaller map you can pull up with the Select button). In later levels, even on the larger maps, you still can’t see everything, and it’s easy to spend ages methodically solving a particularly complex board, only to find out that you screwed yourself ages ago because of something you had no way of seeing or knowing about.

As the game drags on, with little variation in level design and no variation in sound or graphics, playing Ka-Blooey becomes a Sisyphean ordeal. God help you if you’re one of those obsessive gamers that just must see each game through to the final screen, because if so you’ve got a staggering one hundred and thirty stages to slog through. And really, that’s the good reason anyone might have to seek out a copy of Ka-Blooey, as a birthday present for someone with O.C.D. that you don’t particularly like.

Final Score – 3/10

SNES Review – Jack Nicklaus Golf

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 It’s been over four months since the last time I reviewed a Super Nintendo game, and Jack Nicklaus Golf is the reason why. Playing this game was a soul-crushing experience, which completely drained me of the desire to have anything to do with my beloved SNES. Now though, the time has come to give JNG another shot… may the Golfing Gods have mercy on my soul.

At first glance, JNG doesn’t look that bad. The intro screen looks pretty good, by 16-bit standards, there’s some punchy menu screen music, even a bit of customization (in that you can choose your name, and one three, count ‘em, three club colours). There are two courses to choose from, and each round has some nominal variety in wind and weather conditions. So far, so good – and then you actually start playing the game, and everything falls apart.

Right away, you’re liable to notice the graphics, and how the game processes them. Though the in-game visuals are mediocre at best, and well below the SNES’s high-end capabilities, they’re rendered at an absolute snail’s pace. Each time you prepare for a new shot, the game stops dead to slowly draw in the terrain, before loading each tree and other background detail one at a time. The entire process takes nearly ten seconds, and while that might not sound like much, in practical terms it makes playing even a single hole completely insufferable. I honestly thought there might be a problem with my copy of the game, there’s no way this could have ever been shipped as a finished product, but no – that’s just how JNG rolls. Without hyperbole, this is the single slowest-loading cartridge-based game that I’ve ever seen.

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The gameplay is in the standard for most golf games, a two-click system that determines the power and accuracy of each swing of the club. The problem is, there’s no sense of depth or scale, which makes it almost impossible to judge the distance to the hole, and unlike later and better games, JNG doesn’t provide any kind of marker or guide to know roughly what levels you should be aiming for. The whole experience just feels so dead and hollow, and that’s not helped by the near total lack of in-game sound, which is largely reduced to a monotonous whose-thud of club hitting ball.

 JNG offers a password system, so if you walk away mid-game, you can later pick up where you left off. Not that you’d ever, ever want to, but credit where it’s due. The game also offers single hole and practice modes, including a virtual driving range, which is kind of the video game equivalent of a lifetime in purgatory. Despite the various game modes, there’s only one way to have any fun with a copy of Jack Nicklaus Golf, and that’s to use a nine iron to bash the damned thing to pieces.

Final Score – 1/10

SNES Review – The Ignition Factor

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It’s rather rare to find an action game that is essentially nonviolent, so The Ignition Factor is somewhat of a novelty. It’s not exactly unique – in fact, it was one of two firefighting-themed SNES games released in Japan within the same two month period – but its relatively serious and realistic approach helps it to stand out.

In The Ignition Factor, you play as an intrepid firefighter responsible for battling out-of-control blazes in a variety of locations, which vary from officer towers to mines and refineries to a dinosaur museum. As you progress in each level, the fire continues to spread, giving you a ticking clock to work against, as you scour each environment for trapped victims to rescue.

The game certainly looks good, with bright, colourful graphics and some nice (if understated) fire effects. The sound is a little more uneven – for much of the game, you play without music, accompanied only by the clanging of your boots, the sound of your fire extinguisher and the shrill cries of alarms and sirens in the background. Once in awhile though, you’ll get a message from your chief, followed by a short burst of blood-pumping pop music, which then disappears nearly as abruptly as it began. I would have preferred that they either left the music out completely or made it a regular feature… though to be fair, if this game came out today, it would probably have a themed soundtrack with R. Kelly and The Offspring, so it could be worse.

 

 The Ignition Factor’s attempts to be realistic are impressive, but they can also manifest in some frustrating ways. To start with, you can only carry a set amount of equipment before being weighted down, preventing you from running or kicking. The first time through a level, you’re mostly operating blind, and while you can swap out equipment through other firefighters scattered throughout the stage, doing so will cost you precious time. Worse yet, even if you’re carrying the bare minimum for survival, just picking up an item as small as a key card can put you over your weight limit. That said, since the game’s running mechanic is awkward and hard to control at times, you may as well go in loaded for bear. You should also make sure to memorize the map presented to you before the start of each level, because once you’re inside, the in-game map is almost useless.

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There are a several game play elements that prove to be annoying, particularly when it comes to controlling your character. As mentioned, running is awkward, requiring an inconvenient double tap of the D-Pad to activate, and more than once I found myself inadvertently sprinting face-first into a wall of flames because of the temperamental controls. Another problem is that your hose, which only clears away fire directly in front of the water spray. Unless you strafe back and forth, you end up creating the thinnest path that you could possibly pass through… and unfortunately, since your hose is held under one arm, that path is slightly off-centre from the direction you’re facing. As such, you can be walking straight forward clearing out a path, and still find yourself engulfed in flames. Couple that with the fact that whenever you pass into a new room, you can enter the new screen right on top of a patch of fire, even if you come in spraying… the result is maddening. You have a life bar, but it drains quickly – dying means starting over from scratch, and there are only three continues before it’s game over.

In the end, The Ignition Factor is challenging, but not especially fun – it’s a great concept, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Still, it’s a welcome change of pace from the usual 16-bit action fare, and for that reason alone it’s worth playing at least once.

Final Score – 6/10