Friday, 22 June 2018

Ane-San (PC Engine)

It's a mystery why I haven't written about this game sooner, it combines two things I love (beat em ups and sukeban), and I've known about it for years. But I'm writing about it now, and that's all that counts, isn't it? Anyway, for the same reasons it caught my attention also make it a bit of a rarity: there's not many beat em ups on the PC Engine (despite the console's heyday coinciding with the genre's), nor are there many sukeban-themed games on any system. (In fact, to my knowledge, about a third of all that exist are just romhacks of games in the Kunio-kun series.)

So, you play as a trio of tough girls, out to make themselves the leaders of all the tough girls in the country, not through democracy or inspirational leadership, obviously. In the world of juvenile delinquency, power is obtained through the successful application of physical violence: you beat up entire gangs, before beating up their leaders. The first two you beat, an idol and an overweight ballet dancer who acts as an unpleasant fat joke, even join you as playable characters! The combat is fairly typical, and by the game's release in 1995, would have been pretty primitive for the genre. There's no weapons, very few attacks, no big supers or anything, just your attack combo, grab attacks and a throw, a jump attack, and a ground attack. The one thing that really makes the game stand out is that, at the start of the game at least, both you and your enemies are very fragile, going down after only one or two combos.

I say "at the start of the game", as Ane-san features an item shop between stages, and with that comes that eternal bugbear: the negative difficulty curve. I've written about this concept many times before, so I won't bore you by doing it again, but I actually feel like it doesn't hurt this game too much, even though it means you can easily complete the game without using continues in under an hour. The reason for this is actually due to a criticism usually levelled at beat em ups by their detractors: that the genre is nothing but style over substance. It works because Ane-san is rich in style, thanks to its near-total commitment to the sukeban aesthetic.

The stages are all in slightly seedy-looking urban areas at night, with docks, public parks at night, closed shops with the shutters down, docks and so on all appearing in the background. The music for most of the game is a very Japanese interpretation of a kind of 50s America-inspired rockabilly/surf rock sound, which fits the action pretty well, but the final stage ramps up the drama massively, featuring a mournful whistled tune most of the way through, followed by chanting monks for the final boss. It's all very atmospheric, and successfully draws the player into the game's world. There's really only two flaws I can think of, thematcially speaking: the aforementioned "fat joke character", and the fact that the ending is all about one of the characters having a big fancy white wedding in a church. That's not cool or badass or rebellious at all! It's really jarring and ill-fitting with the fun, tough world in which the rest of the game takes place.

Despite its faults, Ane-san is a game that I totally recommend playing. Like I said, the atmosphere and aesthetic are strong enough to negate the cracks in its mechanical armour, and though it only lasts an hour, it's a really great hour, and I can definitely see myself playing it many more times in the future.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Ninpen Manmaru (Saturn)

It's a long held piece of recieved wisdom, perpetuated by idiots, that the Saturn couldn't do 3D graphics, despite the existence of games like NiGHTs, Panzer Dragoon, Quake, Burning Rangers, and a whole bunch more. Ninpen Manmaru is one to count among that bunch more, being a proper, fully 3D platform game that looks great, easily the rival of any of its bigger budgeted Playstation contemporaries.

It's based on an anime that appears to be for small children, which does explain some of the game's design choices, like how there's no combat (even though your character is a ninja penguin with a sword strapped to their back). Enemies in the stages are really just mobile obstacles for you to avoid, and though there are bosses, they're confrontations, rather than fights. Instead, the game's purely about platforming, with the sole aim being to get to the end of each stage within the time limit, and without getting killed by traps or enemies.

The game's big problem, though, is the controls. They're just really sloppy! Your penguin will sometimes land on a tiny platform, then start running immediately after landing, sending him down into the lava below, and sentencing you to another long wait for the platform to come back within reach. In fact, that's the game's other big problem: how much time is spent waiting for moving platforms to get into the right position for you to jump on or off them. I know it's a longstanding platformer tradition, but for some reason, it really grates in this game, right from the start. Maybe I just don't play as many platformers as I once did, and I'm no longer used to the genre's quirks, I don't know, maybe it's just jarring considering how fast your movement is the rest of the time, and it breaks the game's flow. (As an aside, if this game were on any other console, you could mistake it for an attack on SEGA, since the excuse often given for the lack of a proper 3D Sonic game on the Saturn is that the Dreamcast was the first console capable of loading large enough 3D stages for Sonic to run around in, and Ninpen Manmaru is a 3D mascot platformer about a fast-moving blue animal navigating stages as quickly as possible.)

Going back to the subject of bosses, the confrontations being non-violent allows them a little bit of variety, as they take the form of various contests, such as collecting most of the coins in a small area while your opponent does the same, running away from a foe who seems to be trying to eat you until the time runs out, and so on. I haven't played particularly far into the game, as despite being aimed at apparently primary school children, the difficulty curve becomes incredibly steep after the first set of stages, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a regular old race as a boss stage at some point in the game, either.

In summary, Ninpen Manmaru is a decent enough game, that's techinically impressive for any home console of the time, let alone the Saturn. However, if you want to play it, be warned that legitimate copies fetch absurd prices, ranging from around seventy pounds, to ten times that amount. I'm not sure how those prices are justified, either, as the amount of copies on sale on ebay alone show that it can't be a particularly rare game. But I'm sure you can think of some other way of playing it if you really want to.