Monday, 24 February 2020

Polestar (PC98)

Released in 1995, it's clear that Polestar is an attempt to bring some approximation of contemporary arcade racing games like Daytona USA and Ridge Racer to the humble, and by then over a decade old PC98 hardware. (Though the fact that you're driving a red convertible with a passenger is an obvious homage to Outrun, it's those more modern games that Polestar plays more like) In doing so, it also brings to mind the legendary MZ-700 port of Space Harrier, which made incredible use of ASCII graphics to produce the illusion of high-speed sprite scaling on vastly underpowered hardware. Though the PC98 is more powerful than the MZ-700, and Polestar uses low resolution sprites rather than ASCII, the principle's still the same.

The structure is a simple as can be: you drive around a bunch of tracks, racing only against the clock, no other drivers. The biggest problem this game has is that the time limits are incredibly strict: crash or even just go off the road even once and you're not going to finish the race in time. Luckily, you can just go into time attack mode and choose which track you want to drive on if you can't make it through the two linear courses. And it's worth doing too, as it's the tracks themselves that are the real draw in Polestar.

There's eight of them, and they're all ful of cool things to see (albeit some tracks have more stuff than others). The 3D effect offered by the lo-res sprites works excellently, though it's a lot better in motion than it is in still screenshots, unfortunately. And it's used to great effect, too, as you drive past aeroplanes taking off, people on theme park rides, flocks of ravens flying out of the windows of a ruined castle, and lots more interesting things. The devs have been very successful in making a racing game set in a world that's full of life, not just barren tracks with decorative billboards next to them. Though the arcade games mentioned above have all this stuff too, they do it on powerful hardware with polygonal graphics. Personally, I'd love to see a sprite scaling arcade racer with the same kind of background features as Polestar, but with more detailed sprites. I guess the closest thing would be 1992's Outrunners, but even that falls a little towards the "decorative billboard" style of the 1980s.

Polestar is a decent enough game, and incredibly impressive consdiering the host hardware. The only real problems it has are that the time limits are way too strict, and the actual act of driving the car doesn't feel that great, either, so once you've seen all the cool stuff in every track, you aren't likely to go back to it. Contrast with games like Outrun or Super Hang On, which feel great to play, and as such, are endlessly replayable.

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Lin Zexu No Smoking (NES)

The odd title Lin Zexu No Smoking (also known as Lin Ze Xu Jin Yan) can be explained away by the fact that in this game, you play as Longyin Yan, an agent of the nineteenth century Chinese official Lin Zexu, and you spend the game trying to stop the opium trade in China, by fighting against the evil British and their treacherous allies. This all takes place in a beat em up, with some very light adventure game trimmings.

Those light trimmings seem to be an attempt at telling a TV serial-style story through an eight bit videogame, which is very ambitious, though unfortunately, the game doesn't really live up to that ambition. Basically, at the start of each stage, you're given an order, like, go and investigate the British Museum. But you can't go straight there, you have to ask around to find out who might know the way, then find them and ask them for directions. This wouldn't be too bad, were it not for the invisible walls that actually stop you going anywhere until someone's told you the way to get there. And this happens for pretty much every location you need to get to on foot. A particularly egregious case is when you're looking for a secret passage in a garden. The secret passage is hidden in a well, but you can't go down it until you've spoken to the woman nearby who lies and tells you that there's no secret passages nearby.

As for the beat em up sections, they're not totally horrible. Even though there's rarely more than two enemies on screen at a time, they still manage to be challenging, and you do have a few moves at your disposal, though honestly, the only really useful one is your flying kick. Once you get to the jungle and enemies start shooting projectiles at you, the difficulty drastically shoots upwards, too. In fact, there's apparently a part later in the game where you take to the high seas and fire cannons at British ships, but after over half an hour trying to get past one particular gun-toting enemy on the beach, I had give up for the sake of my sanity.

Despite its various huge flaws, I can't bring myself to be too harsh on Lin Zexu No Smoking, as like I said, it is a very ambitious game, both for the hardware, and for the time it was released (in 1996, even on the Playstation and Saturn this kind of story-heavy action game wasn't that common). It's not a good game, but it is at least worthy of note. And one last thing: if you do decide to play it, I strongly recommend doing so on an emulator with the NES's sprite limit turned off. Otherwise the game is a flickery mess. Not to the point of unplability, but it is very ugly and dampens the experience.