Friday, 28 October 2016

Tokusou Kidoutai JSWAT (Saturn)

In the early days of the 32-bit era, there was a lot of experimentation going on, thanks to the fact that everyone now had access to things like texture mapped 3D and the ability to save games without increasing the price of the game itself (because of the cost of the battery needed to save in cartridge games) all in their very own home consoles. New genres were born, and other genres that had previously been confined to PCs in a time when very few people had them at home were made available to the masses. One of the latter genres being the first person shooter.

Now, for some reason, there aren't many Japanese-developed first person shooters, and the ones that do exist tend not to be very popular. Some of them, like JSWAT, don't really deserve to have been popular. I'll admit that there are some things I do like about the game, like the fact that it uses live action FMVs between stages to tell its story, and that those sequences do manage to be pretty seedy and grimy thanks to the harsh lighting and general dirtyness of how everything looks, in a case of a low budget working in a production's favour. There's also the fact that all the game's bullets are actual visible projectiles, rather than the invisible hitscan situation as seen with things like Doom's chainguns, for example. Of course, this also means that all the shots move pretty slowly, giving you and the criminals ample time to dodge bullets like some kind of superhuman. Another thing I like (or at least find mildly interesting) about the game is that the graphics mix full 3D (though very blocky and simple) environments with Mortal Kombat-style digitised sprites, which I guess helps maintain some small amount of aesthetic coherency between the people in the cutscenes and the people in-game. Though the in-game sprites are so low resolution, until you get up close they mainly resemble vaguely humanoid greyish blobs, which ruins the effect somewhat.

There's a few attempted concessions to realism, too. For example, you start each stage with a certain loudout of weapons with limited ammunition (you can choose these, but it's simpler to just pick the "auto" option), and you can only reload a weapon when its current magazine is empty. The game also tries to bring things into full 3D, making you actually aim your weapons vertically, as opposed to the "infinite height" enemies of games like Doom. Unfortunately, the way it does this is incredibly clunky and awkward: to aim, you hold the Z button, and move your crosshair around the screen with the D-pad. It'll stay in whatever position you put it in as you walk around until you tap Z again.

JSWAT also tries to complicate the first person shooter beyond just killing all the enemies and getting out of the stage. Since you're a member of the eponymous Japanese police squad, you're given missions, like rescuing hostages and finding illegally smuggled weapons and so on. This would be something I could count totally in JSWAT's favour, were it not for the fact that no matter what I do, I can't get the second mission (the aforementioned gun smuggling one) to end. I don't know if this is just a poorly designed stage with some obtusely hidden gimmick somewhere, or if, yet again, my Japanese illiteracy has caused me to miss some vital part of the mission's briefing.

All in all, Tokusou Kidoutai JSWAT is a game that's very ambitious, but not very fun to play. Even if i was able to get past the second mission, I think the clunky controls and general slow pace of the game would have stopped me from getting much further into it before boredom and frustration set in. I know the Saturn port of Doom is supposed to be pretty bad, but the console's also home to Quake, Exhumed and Duke Nukem 3D, all three of which it does an excellent job of hosting, and all three of which you should definitely play before you resort to this.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Blocken (Arcade)

For years, I thought that Taito had made the first competitive block-smashing game in 1997, when they combined Arkanoid and Puzzle Bobble into Puchi Carat. But it turns out that Visco beat them to it by three years when they released Blocken, which for some reason seems to have been totally forgotten and never even got ported to a single home system, despite its ground-breaking concept.

Each match sees the two opponents each smashing blocks in their own seperate well, and the match can end in one of three ways: a player can win by clearing all the blocks in their well, or they can lose by either losing their ball off the bottom of the screen (though each player does start with a row of multi-hit bricks behind them, so this rarely happens) or by having their bat crushed by descending blocks.

It could be said that it's less "pure" than Puchi Carat, though, as while Taito's game uses nothing but blocks, ball, bat and the bottom of the screen to create the rules of engagement, Blocken uses a similar system of power-ups to the infamously brutal SNES competitive puzzler, Tetris Battle Gaiden, in that certain blocks drop stars, which, like the power pellets in TBG, can be saved up and used towards various ends. Using between one and seven stars will push your opponent's blocks down one row for each star used, and if you used more than five, you'll also summon the games mascot, a small winged ball creature, to come and repair one of your protective blocks. If you keep collecting a few more stars after you've saved up seven, your star gauge will start flashing, and cashing in while this is happening gets you all the lesser benefits, as well as a few seconds in a kind of super-mode where your ball smashes through blocks without bouncing off them, and your bat becomes enflamed and indestructible, also destroying blocks it touches.

Once you figure out how the rules of the game work (or have someone explain them, like I just did), it's actually a lot of fun! It doesn't have the aesthetic polish or mechanical purity of Puchi Carat, but it's definitely as fun and totally worth playing. Plus, even without that game's polish, it does have a lot of it's own nice little touches, like how the ball can hit stars on their way down the screen, knocking them slightly off course, or how each of the AI opponents has a slightly different-looking bat. It's little things like that that can really add a lot of character to a simple game like this.

Blocken's a game I definitely recommend seeing out if you enjoy block-smashing games or competitive puzzlers (or both), and it's a shame it never got the attention or recognition it deserves.