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Sinister for the Difficulty

  • Aug 15, 2013
In the great race of space bad guys in video games who are all out to destroy the Earth, the Sinistron is unique. Instead of being an entire squadron of aliens, the Sinistron is just one enemy. Just one. So what's the problem? Well, he's a big 'un, who is out to lay waste to our home planet after gobbling up Pluto as a snack, like some kind of budget version of Galactus.

The video game, Sinistron, is named after this beast. The background story is that for once, whatever galactic federation is running the space show by this time in Earth's timeline actually has enough sense to send an entire squadron after the Sinistron in order to keep it from feasting on our planet. Unfortunately, killing the thing involves physically entering its body, fighting up to its brain, and torching the brain. Now, can we see where a potential problem might pop up in that scenario? Yeah, it didn't go very well for most of the squad - all but one of the fighters got shot down in an ion storm. That lone remaining fighter is you.

Sinistron is another shooter in the array of spectacular shooters available for the old TurboGrafx-16. Except it isn't all that spectacular. It's fun, and has a wee bit of originality, but it's by no means on the level of a Blazing Lazers or a Gate of Thunder, to name two of the Turbo's shooters which are constantly ranked among the greatest ever. Sinistron doesn't do a whole lot that's wrong; it just doesn't take enough risks in order to stand out. Of course, the one thing it does do wrong is take the difficulty curve a little too steeply. I'll get to that.

The one truly unique thing about Sinistron would have to be the ramming jaws and the way the weapon system is set up. Here's how it works: The long, yellow part on the front of your ship is invincible. It's actually pretty useful as an offensive weapon, and there will be times in Sinistron when you'll have to find ways to use it creatively to add an extra punch to whatever weapon you're equipped with at the time. The parts of the ship that aren't the ramming jaw, though, are your standard one-hit-and-you-die pressure points. When your weapon gets powered up from the basic laser you start with, you all of a sudden gain the ability to open up the ramming jaw a little bit, which allows you to spread out your firepower a little bit. The downside is that it also exposes a small part of your ship that's not invincible. If that part, or any other parts that aren't the ramming jaw, gets hit, you go boom.

Now, I have to question just how much of this game is taking place in a living being. There are some parts of the game where you're clearly not inside of something which is supposed to be alive. In the first level, I'll accept the idea that maybe you're still in the act of flying into the sucker, but there's no explanation for the deep space level that is level four. Some parts of the game have a mechanical look.

The weapon system and ramming jaw add a little bit of depth to the game, and Sinistron is one of the only Turbo games I've played which has a device that encourages gamers to not use the rapid fire switch. If you hold down the attack button, a little meter charges up, and when attack is released after that meter is full, your ship unleashed a blast wave that goes a short distance in every direction. That weapon, called the hypersonic blast, isn't very powerful, though. It's barely better than the basic cannon you start with, and its range is too short to make it effective. I've found the best weapon in the game to easily be the crystal laser, especially when it's powered up. You're better off just using the rapid fire.

Aside from the weapon system, the other thing Sinistron is known for is the nastiest difficulty steeping in the history of everything. Your advanced math classes don't have anything on Sinistron. After the first two levels, you'll wonder if Sinistron will be a basic jaunt through the park. The third level is much, much harder. The third level features brutal terrain and lots of narrow spaces; with worm enemies which bend to make space even narrower and are invincible over most of their bodies; mushroom enemies which jump out in surprise; mushroom enemies which take millions of shots, float slowly in your way, and shoot guided missiles. The fourth level makes you deal exclusively with asteroids which come in all different colors and follow unpredictable patterns. The patterns are so unpredictable and, even when you're able to memorize them, the margin of error is still so narrow that you're probably going to give up forever here. Owning Sinistron for as long as I did, I was only able to make it past the fourth level four or five times. In the fifth level, things get elevated to damn near impossible. The game throws you into a brutal maze. The enemies take a million hits, move faster than lightning, and launch guided missiles. If you get stuck tackling this level with anything other than a powered-up crystal laser, you're toast. You just can't win. There's a sixth, final level which I've only seen on Youtube.

Making matters worse is the Gradius-like system of new lives. That's gamer speak for the phrase DON'T YOU DARE EVER FUCKING DIE. Sinistron is actually worse than that because not only does it strip you of your weapons upon death, it throws you back in the level to either the beginning or a checkpoint. Checkpoints only happen once per level. This could be considered a somewhat merciful act because power-ups tend to be located only at those points, but even so, if you enter a particularly difficult place with the crystal laser and die, you'll lose the crystal laser and there's a good chance you won't be able to get another one. If you ARE able to get another one, your chances of getting it powered up all the way are virtually nil. That's important, because the crystal laser is the only reasonable chance you have of actually beating the game.

An alien-fighting game set in space - or inside a space alien in this case - can offer graphic designers the convenience of designing weird, formless piles of nothing. That can be the case fairly often in Sinistron. Even the main ship doesn't have anything resembling a real design. There are some things that have looks, like the mushrooms, but some of the enemies look like generic fighter spaceships. One enemy in the second level - I'll note that it's officially referred to as the Gas Tunnel Stage or some such - looks like, well, something that's been digested and is on the way out. The only enemies in the fourth level are asteroids. Really? There isn't very much animation.

The sounds are terrible. The music is tiny, and most of the explosions sound like small, muffled pops. Two of the guns you can use don't have any real sound at all.

The controls work. It's a little tough to want to open or close the ship's ramming jaw all the way because you have to press the open/close button twice in order to do that. The ship also moves a little slowly, and the speed power-ups don't make much of a difference. I've noticed that the ship doesn't really speed up anymore after being powered up three times. You'll get used to the slow powered-up speeds, but the starting speed feels like a real strain.

Sinistron really isn't a bad shooter. It's just ordinary. And really fucking hard.

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September 22, 2013
August 17, 2013
shooters are one of those games that give me a chance to space out. But I haven't played this yet...
August 17, 2013
I'm not surprised. It was a TurboGrafx-16 game, which means it's exceedingly scarce. I'm not sure if it's on the Virtual Console. If it is, you're good. If not, good luck finding it.
About the reviewer
Nicholas Croston ()
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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