Thursday, 16 November 2017

Shadows of the Tusk (Saturn)

It seems slightly strange to me there there are two obscure Saturn games that use pre-rendered sprites and have character designs by Susumu Matsushita. (The other one, you might remember me covering a while ago, is Willy Wombat.) Anyway, Shadows of the Tusk is a turn-based strategy game, that, to add onto the unusuality of the whole affair, had online play via the X-BAND modem, though there's still plenty of single-player fun to be had, so that's fine.

The online element does seem to have had an influence on the design in general, as a lot of things seem streamlined to cater to the low bandwidth that would have been available to a dialup modem attached to a four-year-old console in 1998. For a start, there's no levelling up for any of the characters, though there is some kind of power progression in a different way. In single player mode, you have a "deck" of characters to build, and you get more characters by winning battles. Your deck screen has you putting characters on two rows: the smaller row has the characters that are summoned automatically at the start of battle, the character who starts on the middle space of that row will be designated the leader, meaning that the battle ends if they're defeated, and they also have the ability to summon characters that you've placed in the other row of the deck. Summoning costs mana, and your force has a shared mana pool that's also used for casting spells, and regenerates by ensuring that characters start their turns on certain spaces on the map.

Another concession is that though there are different backgrounds available, every battle takes place on a tiny five-by-five grid. This, in combination with the "kill the leader" tactical element ensures that the game has an almost chess-like emphasis on where you move your characters, and there'll even be plenty of times when you'll sacrifice characters to either make way for stronger characters stood behind them, or just to postpone your enemy's soldiers reaching your leader. Another thing to take into account while talking about character placement is that any spell or attack you can cast that affects an area will not discern between friend and foe, meaning that you might end up sometimes have to decide if you want to heal your enemies or immolate your allies.

Obviously, I haven't played the multiplayer mode around which the game is clearly centred, but there's enough meat to the singleplayer game that it's still worth your time. Best of all is that though all the plot-related stuff is in Japanese, all the menus, including those during the battles, are entirely in English! So, this is a pretty fun game that mostly looks great (the small sprites on the grid look really nice, while the bigger sprites used for the attack animations look like the most awful mid-90s CG), and is totally accessible to the JP-illiterate. I definitely recommend it!

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Road Spirits (PC Engine)

Road Spirits isn't a particuarly good or original game, but it does serve as a useful example to point out and debunk two annoying habits of the kinds of people who write videogames reviews as if they're writing consumer reports on household appliances rather than subjective critiques of creative works.

First up is the idea that the length of time between starting a game and seeing its ending is the sole, or most important arbiter of a game's quality and value for money. It the idea that leads to people complaining that ports of even recent arcade games are "unworthy" of being sold at anything other than the lowest bargain prices, because they don't babysit the player through fourty hours of box-ticking and map-tidying. To use Road Spirits as an example, we can compare it to SEGA's Outrun. A full run of Outrun, from beginning to end will take between five and eight minutes, while Road Spirits has seventeen tracks which are tackled in a set order, each taking between three and four minutes to drive through.

Outrun is also better than Road Spirits in practically every way. Where Outrun's stages are full of obstacles and other objects, Road Spirits' stages are sparsely decorated with a few signs or trees here and there, making them feel empty and lifeless. Also, Outrun is a challenging game, in which you try desperately to reach checkpoints before running out of time, and trying to pass other vehicles without hitting them to score the most points, while Road Spirits has absurdly generous time limits you'd have deliberately try to fail, and the very few other cars you see on the road don't really serve any purpose at all. The one point Road Spirits has over Outrun is that it takes advantage of its format, having a full CD quality soundtrack with ten songs. So, it's a clear case of quality over quantity right? Anyone would choose Outrun over Road Spirits, even though Road Spirits is a much longer game from start to finish.

The other annoying habit is the idea that games can never be more than the sum of their parts, something that's not such a big problem any more, though there are still writers putting out reviews with lots of different numbers exactly stating how good they think each seperate aspect of a game is. You can see from the first part of the review that this isn't a great game, and is not only pretty mediocre in almost every respect, but also significantly inferior to a very similar game released a few years earlier in the same genre. But the thing is, it's not a worthless game, there is a reason to play, and a situation in which it's actually a pretty great experience!

This mostly hinges upon the aforementioned CD soundtrack, but if you play this game late on a sweltering hot summer's night, with the lights of and the windows open, you play a few stages, making sure to choose the more sophisticated tunes from the soundtrack, it's a great mood-setting game. It just provides a cool, relaxing atmosphere in a way that makes the whole thing worthwhile, and which can't really be described in a collection of arbitrary numbers.

So yeah, it's not a killer app or anything, but considering that you can get a copy for a handful of pennies if you shop around a bit, it's a worthwhile addition to your PC Engine CD library.