Blizzard Entertainment turns 30 this year and, to mark the occasion, BlizzCon last month saw the announcement of Blizzard Arcade Collection. This birthday package rummages out three SNES classics from the early years of the company, blows off the dust, spruces them up a bit, shuffles in some artefacts of company history, then wraps them in colourful paper and ties the whole thing up with a big, sparkly bow – then unabashedly slaps on a brand new price label. So are these games the gifts that keep on giving? Or are we hoping they kept the receipt?
The three games in question are 1992’s The Lost Vikings, 1993’s Rock ‘n Roll Racing and 1994’s Blackthorne. These were the relatively humble beginnings before Warcraft came out in 1995, and started the snowball for Blizzard’s million-selling, multimillion-selling and tens-of-millions-selling mega-franchises that are cultural touchstones for generations of gamers. World of Warcraft, StarCraft, Diablo and Overwatch: unimaginable achievements for the three UCLA graduates we see in the ‘Early years’ photo gallery, renting a bare office and taking lunch breaks on the floor with no furniture. But here we are in 2021, Blizzard aged 30, and the three vintage games are getting a modern makeover.
On launch, the first sign that we’re not in the ’90s anymore: psyched to blast open a Rock ‘n Roll nostalgia-fest, you must first spend a full 15 seconds holding the d-pad to scroll through an End User License Agreement before being allowed to select ‘Agree’. Blizzard Arcade Collection will tell you the story of a plucky start-up, but not before jackbooting you through its mega-corp legal rituals. Rock ‘n Roll!
Anyway, let’s look first at The Lost Vikings, the oldest of the Arcade Collection trio. This is a puzzle-platformer where you cycle control between three Vikings, leveraging their respective abilities in turn to get all three to the exit of each level. The setup is endearingly bonkers: Erik The Swift, Baleog The Fierce and Olaf The Stout get impounded by Tomator, Space Emperor of Croutonia, for his intergalactic zoo. This grants Silicon & Synapse (as Blizzard was then called) license to take the Vikings to all manner of brightly-coloured settings, helping to keep the game fresh for most of its run. It was a well-reviewed game in its day and, while its design includes some of the player-hostile quirks of the era (no checkpoints, mistakes punished severely by repetition), it’s not too unpalatable to modern tastes. Thanks to the newly-added ability to rewind and correct errors, you could imagine it doing OK as a retro-style indie game if it were released today.
Features-wise, The Lost Vikings presentation offers both the SNES and Mega Drive / Genesis versions of the game and a new ‘Definitive Edition’, which has the extra levels and three-player support of the Mega Drive version, plus a nice widescreen title card and screen borders drawn to enhance each stage. However, it lacks some major strengths of the remastered vintage versions: there are no save states, no rewind, no screen size or border options and no filters. So if you want big-screen gaming and mod cons like save/load – and the frustration-soothing rewind – leave the Definitive Edition alone.
Next up is Rock ‘n Roll Racing, which arrived a year after The Lost Vikings, in 1993. The isometric collect-items-tune-your-car futuristic racer is surely the jewel in the crown of Blizzard Arcade Collection, having been released to critical acclaim on multiple formats in the past. In this case, though, the Definitive Edition is indeed definitive. The whole game has been remastered into a full widescreen experience, the graphics enhanced subtly without defacing the original content, and the soundtrack updated.
“Wait! Updated soundtrack?!” we hear you cry. Fans from the SNES days may well have been wondering how Blizzard would deal with the licensed chiptune soundtrack. Cut it from the game? Replace it with something similar but legally different enough to avoid issues? Well, they went with option 3: re-license all the original tracks, lyrics and all, in CD quality, and throw some more in for good measure. It’s the dream scenario. The growling “Breaking the law! Breaking the law!” fits the aesthetic of RNRR so hilariously well the whole package is like a parody of itself. The controls are still tight, the action free-flowing and the commentary even more hammed up. In general, the son et lumière has been boosted for a retro release that plays like you remember it, not how it actually was. Awesome.
Alongside the Definitive Edition is a new four-player split-screen version of the game. The track design and handling work well for multiplayer, and the silliness of the concept is just right for throwaway racing. However, it’s worth noting that you can’t play it (or any of Blizzard Arcade Collection in fact) with single Joy-Con. You’ll need a Pro Controller or Joy-Con pair for each player. This seems like a missed opportunity: if ever there was a game to stick on the tabletop with that flimsy pop-stand and cram your fingers together with a friend for, this is surely it. Also in the package are the SNES and Mega Drive editions of the game. But in light of the excellent modernised version, they are adding little.
And finally, Blackthorne, the 1994 rotoscoped cinematic sci-fi platformer. The flavour of Blackthorne is decidedly ’80s; the plot and aesthetic are somewhere between Conan, Terminator and Highlander, with an alien hero stalking about, hiding in the shadows then smoking grunts one-handed with a shotgun. Unlike The Lost Vikings, which leverages its wild narrative for all manner of vibrant stage settings, however, Blackthorne sticks to a much narrower pallet. It’s a more mature feel, but it’s also a bit harder to persevere with when the dark side of retro game design leaves you replaying tricky sections.
Unfortunately, the Definitive Edition is again not one we can recommend. It brings a new auto-mapping feature but also adds level-themed screen borders that can confuse things by looking like scenery. Further, like The Lost Vikings again, the quality-of-life supplements – save/load, rewind, screen size, etc. – are not present in the Definitive Edition. Another feature that puts the old console versions out in front is a Watch mode, that lets you see the whole game played from start to finish, with the ability to skip through to the parts you want to see, and to instantly take over control and play from any point in the recording. The Lost Vikings has the same feature: it’s really well implemented and a nice way to remind yourself of what’s in the game and just play that one favourite part again.
Blackthorne is a good game and worth playing through with the assists added to the console versions. However, comparisons with Flashback – from 1992, also available on Switch – are inevitable and unflattering. Blackthorne is not as artfully paced nor as satisfying to move around in, but it is something different if you’ve played Flashback to death.
There’s one more thing in Blizzard Arcade Collection, which is the museum section. Here you can see game boxes, concept art and photos of the team setting up in the ’90s, and listen to music from Blackthorne and The Lost Vikings. The stand-out pieces here, though, are the video interviews with Blizzard founders and staff. The videos don’t reveal anything too surprising, but are still the unique recollections of people who were there. As such, they feel priceless and put across the human side of the impressive Blizzard story.
As a birthday gift from Blizzard to itself, Blizzard Arcade Collection has been put together with some care. Sometimes good things come in smaller packages, though, and a lot of the content here is superfluous. Two of the Definitive Edition games are worse than the SNES titles also included, while Rock ‘n Roll Racing’s is so successful that including the SNES and Mega Drive versions has only really added clutter. The result is a need to start every version of every game a few times to work out which one is actually worth playing, which somewhat spoils the party. But, for all those imperfections, there’s a lot to love: it may not be exactly what we’ve always wanted, but it’s the thought that counts.