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The Depressing Legacy of the ‘Jagged Alliance’ Series

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Look up any list of the greatest strategy games on PC and without a doubt, the name Jagged Alliance will show up somewhere. Whether it be the 1995 DOS original or the much better known 1999 sequel, these two are some of the greatest squad-level strategy games ever released, and so well loved that they still have their fans today. So why isn’t Jagged Alliance a household name like XCom or Might and Magic? Why don’t we hear about Sirtech like we do Firaxis or Hairbrained Schemes? And why do fans of the series moan with anguish whenever a new game is announced?

In 1979 Sirotech released their first piece of software, Info Tree which was a database management software. It did well enough, but like many other dev teams of the time, Sirotech saw where the money was going: video games. Only a few months later they released Galactic Attack which received high praise, but their big breakthrough would come one year, and a re-branding as Sir-Tech with their next title Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad OverlordWizardry was a smash hit, outselling Ultima and becoming the most played game on the Apple II. Sir-tech would continue releasing Wizardry titles, as well as some assorted other games, but by 1995 they needed something new and more modern.

It can’t be overstated how good of a strategy game Jagged Alliance 2 is, and its influence, both direct and indirect, is still being felt today.

Jagged Alliance is about as far from the Dungeons and Dragons of Wizardry as you can imagine. Rather than creating a party of adventurers, you’re hiring mercenaries, and rather than fighting for glory you’re killing to pay the rent. Gameplay was also a departure, placing a heavy emphasis on the equipment of your units and their positioning on the map, much more war-gaming than pen-and-paper. Regardless, the change worked in Sir-Tech’s favour and Jagged Alliance became another massive hit, earning critical accolades along the way and being named 1995 Strategy Game of the Year along with Heroes of Might and Magic.

Jagged Alliance 2, possibly the greatest strategy game ever.

Unfortunately, things weren’t looking good for Sir-Tech, and by 1998 they were broke. The US office was forced to close down, but up North Sir-Tech Canada had just enough to stay alive till the release of their massive sequels to Jagged Alliance and WizardryWizardry 8 would release in 2001 and keep the Canadian office open for 2 more years, but it’s their take on Jagged Alliance that has kept their memory alive much longer.

It can’t be overstated how good of a strategy game Jagged Alliance 2 is, and its influence, both direct and indirect, is still being felt today. It presented an interesting mix of deep strategic combat, resource and business management, and RPG progression that few games have matched even today. It’s perhaps the closest to running a South-American mercenary company most of us will ever get and the fact that it hasn’t been copied or surpassed properly is astounding. Fans took notice too, and the massive fan projects like the legitimized Jagged Alliance 2 Wildfire expansion or the incredible overhauls found in the 1.13 patch have provided the game a longevity few classics enjoy.

Jagged Alliance Online, the first signs of trouble

However with the closing of a company there comes the question of their assets, and Sir-tech was no different. Wizardry was sold off to Atlus, who have continued to release games largely in Japan with mixed results. Jagged Alliance hasn’t been as lucky, not by a long shot, and as of this writing, the series has been worked on by 6-7 different publishers and developers across about as many games.

First was Jagged Alliance: Online, from Gamigo AG and bitComposer. Online took the familiar JA gameplay and…put it online as an MMO. It flopped, and has largely been forgotten, not even getting its own Wikipedia page. It is, however, the closest any of the JA games post-Sir-tech have been to their source material.

At the same time as Online was floundering bitComposer also announced and released Jagged Alliance: Back in Action, which was an attempt re-make JA2 with modern graphics. BiA was also a flop, eschewing the well refined and beloved turn-based grid combat for a confusing and un-intuitive pause-able real time system. It had ugly graphics, terrible voice-acting, and cut content from JA2, and is all-around one of the worst remakes for a beloved game available. Not even a slew of expansions and DLC packs could save it, and it too has largely been forgotten.

Next, there was Crossfire, a pseudo-sequel to JA2/BiA taking place after those games in a nearby nation that’s also requesting mercenary help. Like BiA it once again does away with the grid combat, and also features horrible voice-acting. The graphics are improved but now come with a side order of bugs and a dessert menu of abandonment, since the devs have dropped all support for what many consider a broken game.

Jagged Alliance: Rage! The sequel we’ve all been waiting for?

Finally, after a fairly bizarre DS re-release of the first game, there’s Jagged Alliance: Flashback, which was funded thanks to a Kickstarter, raising $368,000 back in 2013. It promised a return to form for the series, bringing back the traditional turn-based gameplay and inject a comic-book graphics style into the series, a welcome change from the drab nature of the last two games. Great as those promises were, they turned out to be nothing but smoke, and after a short release on early access, the devs declared the unfinished game done and walked away forever, to the point where the Steam page text still lists the features as:

“More features and content will be added on a regular basis, and together with your feedback and support, we will shape this game to be the best Jagged Alliance game yet! Please feel free to give us your comments, your thoughts, and your recommendations. We listen to every one of you.”

So the Jagged Alliance series hasn’t had a great run, from Sir-tech closing down in 2003 to their IP being passed around like a wet noodle. Still, the name still peaks interest in long-time fans, and there’s still hope for a worthy successor. As of this writing Jagged Alliance: Rage has been announced, promising turn-based strategy with RPG elements. However it’s by the developers of JA: Online and the dismal Shadowrun: Boston Lockdown, so many fans aren’t holding their breath. Maybe one day we’ll see someone do the series justice, till then the originals work fine and the price is right for fans both new and old.

Andrew Vandersteen has been watching movies and playing games since before he could do basic math, and it shows. But what he lacks in being good at things, he makes up for with opinions on everything nerd culture. A self described and self medicated audiophile and lover of anything and everything really, really terrible, he's on a constant quest to find the worst things humanity has ever published. He's seen every episode of The Legend of Zelda, twice, and thinks the Super Mario Movie was a war crime. When he's not playing games or writing about them, he's messing around with audio or fixing computers. Perpetually one paycheck short of breaking even, and always angry about something.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. William Bowers

    July 19, 2019 at 2:09 am

    JA:BIA was hardly that bad, though I’ll admit the initial bad reviews (which it received for good reason) kept me away from the game for quite awhile – until I came across it in a bargain bin a few years later. With the latest available updates and with one of the better mods available for JA:BIA, it is not a bad game at all. It hardly looks terrible (it looks perfectly fine for a 3D game of this type), and it’s pause-able real time system seemed pretty well executed. Yes, voice acting wasn’t the best (but not the worst either), and the game sadly did have JA2 features cut from it that it would have been a lot better off keeping. Definitely not as deep or as broad a strategic game, but mostly satisfying – despite some silly annoyances it could have done without.

    I think the only way we are going to see another really good Jagged Alliance game is when some other man-to-man squad tactics game comes out – one which is its own animal, perhaps having more of a straight, historical, regular military campaign, rather than having a mercenary campaign occurring in a made up country. It could be turn based or have a pause-able real time system – either one of which is fine to me. This is a niche market (this type of strategic tactical game), so whoever develops that next really good JA-like game is likely going to have to be a small indie developer with a lot of passion for this type of gameplay.

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‘Tecmo Bowl, the Godfather of NFL Games

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Tecmo Bowl Retrospective

Tecmo Bowl was a big deal back in 1989!

With Madden growing more popular and even more complex every year, we sometimes forget about the game that started it all.

I cannot stress the importance of Tecmo Bowl twenty-nine years after its release. Originally an arcade game, Tecmo Bowl was ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System by the makers of such classics as Ninja Gaiden, Mighty Bomb Jack, and Solomon’s Key, and it took everyone by surprise by just how good it was. Nobody expected the Japanese developers of puzzle games and 2D platformers to succeed in creating a sports game, much less an American sports game, but they did. Named NES Sports Game of the Year, Tecmo Bowl provided players with the best football experience found on the NES console back in 1989 and it paved the way for what became the biggest trend in sports games to this day.

Although Tecmo didn’t have the official NFL license to use the actual team names and logos (the teams in the game are identified by their home city or state), the game features players from 12 NFL franchises due to being licensed by the NFLPA (National Football League Players Association). Nowadays this doesn’t seem like a big deal but back in 1989 it was huge! Tecmo Bowl features some of football’s greatest players including John Elway, Bo Jackson, Marcus Allen, Mike Singletary, Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Walter Payton, and Dan Marino, and when it shipped 29 years ago, it changed everything for sports video games.

Long before football video games became just as complex as real-life football, Tecmo Bowl laid the groundwork for what would be the standard moving forward. There aren’t many plays to choose from but you’re given the choice of 4 plays while on offense and another 4 while on defense. In addition, the game features three different modes: Single Player, Two Player, and Coaching mode which allows you to call plays while letting the CPU control the players on the field. The simple and responsive controls work perfectly within the framework of the game, and it is this simplicity that makes the game fun to play to this day. And regardless if you know don’t know much about the sport, anyone can easily follow along thanks to the broadcast camera view and two-button controls.

Tecmo_Celebration_1280w

Tecmo Bowl is a seemingly effortless game in which everything falls neatly into place. It stripped football down to its basic elements and created a fun arcade experience anyone can enjoy. Tecmo Bowl was Madden before Madden was a household name. It’s the game that started the football franchise craze in video games and laid the groundwork for the even better, Tecmo Super Bowl. American football games have come a long way over the years, but what hasn’t changed is the sheer enjoyment any football fan can have when playing Tecmo Bowl.

Tecmo Bowl is without a doubt the granddaddy of football games, and there’s something to be said for the back-to-basics formula that Tecmo Bowl employed. With technological enhancements in gameplay, graphics, power, and speed, the original Tecmo Bowl seems incredibly dated in 2016, but surprisingly the game holds up nearly three decades later.

Side Note: There were two NES versions of the game released in the U.S. The first release is easily identified by its black and gold seal of quality and the second version by its white and gold seal. It should also be noted that the names of players were removed on the virtual console release.

Tecmo Bowl
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Game Reviews

‘Coffee Talk’ Review: The Best Brew in Town

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.

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It’s 9:00pm. The rain just started coming down softly a few minutes ago, and the street outside is reflecting the lights above it. Neon signs shine brightly in the distance, although it’s hard to make out the words. You unlock the doors to the coffee shop and wipe down the counters in order to get them clean for the customers. The rain makes a soft sound as it hits the glass and passerby speed up their walking pace to avoid it. The bells chime as a tall, green orc walks in and sits down at your table in silence. You wonder what their story is…

I wanted to set the tone for this review because of how important atmosphere and audio/visual design is in the world of Coffee Talk. While it’s easy to boil the game down as a visual novel-type experience, it’s honestly so much more than that. A unique cast of characters, incredible user interface, and a mysterious protagonist combine to form the most enjoyable experience I’ve had this year on Switch.

Coffee Talk
Some of the subject matter can be pretty serious in nature…

Coffee Talk is beautiful because of how simple it is. The entire game takes place within a single coffee shop. As the barista, you’re tasked with making drinks for the patrons of the shop as well as making conversations with them. The twist is that earth is populated with creatures like orcs, werewolves, and succubi. The relationship between the various races is handled very well throughout the story, and some interesting parallels are made to the real world.

Making drinks is as simple as putting together a combination of three ingredients and hitting the ‘Serve’ button. If a unique drink is made, it will be added to a recipe list that can be referenced on the barista’s cell phone. This is where the awesome user interface comes in, as the phone has a series of apps that can be accessed at any moment in the game. One app houses your recipe list, another acts as a facebook for the characters in the game, one allows you to switch between songs, and the other houses a series of short stories that one of the characters in the game writes as it progresses. It’s one of the coolest parts of the whole experience and helps it stand out from other games in the genre.

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.

Coffee Talk cycles between talking with customers and making drinks for them. In the beginning, they will ask for basic beverages that can be brewed on the fly. Later on however, they may ask for a specific type of drink that has a unique title. These drinks often have certain descriptive features that hint at other possibilities in terms of unique dialogue. If the wrong drink is made, you’ll have five chances to trash it and make a new one. If the wrong drink is made, don’t expect the customer to be pleased about it.

The gameplay really is not the focus here though; it’s the characters and their stories that take center stage. An elf with relationship issues, a writer that can’t seem to pin down her next story, and an alien whose sole goal is to mate with an earthling are just a few of the examples of the characters you’ll meet during the story. There are tons of memorable moments throughout Coffee Talk, with every character bringing something unique to the table. The barista develops an interesting relationship with many of these characters as well.

Coffee Talk
Appearances can often be deceiving in this game.

Even though serving the wrong drinks can change some of the dialogue, don’t expect any sort of options or branching paths in terms of the story. It’s not that kind of experience; the story should simply be enjoyed for what it is. I found myself glued to the screen at the end of each of the in-game days, waiting to see what would happen in the morning. The first playthrough also doesn’t answer all of the game’s questions, as the second one is filled with all kinds of surprises that I won’t spoil here.


Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen. It’s an easy recommendation for anyone who loves video games, not just visual novel fans. There are characters in the game that I’ll certainly be thinking about for a long time, especially when the setting brings out the best in them. Don’t pass this one up.

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The Magic of Nintendo: How Mario and Zelda Connect us to Our Inner Child

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Magic of Nintendo

Nintendo is special. Many excellent developers depend upon story or progression systems to entice engagement, but not Nintendo. Nintendo games captivate because of their immediate charm. There is no need for a payoff. The games, themselves, are enough: they elicit feelings, hard to find in adulthood. Through intrepid discovery, playful presentation, and unfiltered whimsy, the best of Nintendo connects gamers to their childlike selves.

The heart of any great Nintendo game is discovery and no encounter encapsulates this better than Breath of the Wild’s Eventide Island. First, finding the island requires genuine gumption. Found far from Hyrule’s shore, the island is only clearly visible from other islands, and even then, it’s only a speck in the distance. Reaching the island requires players to brave the open ocean and head towards something … that could be nothing. Then, upon arriving on the beach, a spirit takes all the player’s gear, including clothes and food. Link, literally, is left in his underwear. From there, players must make clever use of Link’s base skills in order to steal enemy weapons and make traps. The scenario creates a marvelous sense of self-sufficiency brought on by one’s own desire to discover. The player comes to the island purely of their own choosing, tackles the sea, and then overcomes obstacles without the aid of their strongest tools. The game turns players into plucky children who are discovering they can take care of themselves.

The intrepidity of Breath of the Wild and other Nintendo greats mirrors the feelings Shigeru Miyamoto, the father of many Nintendo franchises, experienced as a child. “I can still recall the kind of sensation I had when I was in a small river, and I was searching with my hands beneath a rock, and something hit my finger, and I noticed it was a fish,” Miyamoto told the New Yorker. “That’s something that I just can’t express in words. It’s such an unusual situation.” In sequences like Eventide Island, players don’t just understand what Miyamoto describes, they feel it: Apprehension gives way to exhilaration as the unknown becomes a place of play.

 Nintendo’s intrepid gameplay is often amplified by playful presentation with Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island being the quintessential example. The game’s visuals, defined by pastel colors and simple hand-drawings, appear crayoned by a child while the celestial chimes that punctuate the jubilant soundtrack evoke shooting stars. The overall effect cannot be understated. It takes the surreal and turns it real, allowing players to interact, tangibly, with imagination.

Super Mario Odyssey Wooden Kingdom

Even if one removes the presentation and gameplay from Nintendo’s masterpieces, an unabashed creativity remains that bucks norm and convention. The arbiter is fun; reason and logic have no say. For instance, Super Mario Odyssey’s Wooded Kingdom, takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting akin to Nier Automata. Players explore the metal remnants of a civilization that has become a lush home to robotic beings. However, unlike Nier, the dark undertones of the past have no bearing on the game or those who inhabit its universe. The post-apocalyptic setting is just a fun backdrop. It’s as though a bunch of children got together, began playing with toys, and one of the kids brought along his sibling’s adult action figures. There is no attention paid to the context, only unfiltered imagination.

When they’re at their best the creators at Nintendo invite gamers to come and play, like a parent arranging a play date. Pulled along by joyful gameplay that expands in unforeseen ways, players desire to play for the sake of play. It’s a halcyon state of being: No messy thoughts or contradiction, just joy.

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