Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Outlander (Mega Drive)

This is a game I first encountered years ago, in my earliest days of emulation, but back then, I never figured out how to actually play it. Or at least, I never figured out how to play it for a decent amount of time. But before I get onto that, I should describe what the game actually is: it's a would-be sequel to a Mad Max game on the NES (that I haven't played), though the publisher apparently no longer had the license, so they just changed the name.

You play as some guy driving through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, constantly assailed by bikers, and later on, people in cars and helicopter pilots. You can fight them off with machineguns mounted to the front of your car, and when an enemy's coming close up next to you, a little side window appears and, if your timing's good enough, you can blast them with your shotgun. Eventually, the little left-pointing arrow on your dashboard will start blinking, telling you that you're near a town and you should pull over (which is done by stopping your car to the left side of the road, then turning the steering wheel left as far as it'll go).

That's the part I never figured out back then, and it's pretty important! The town segments take the form of single-plane beat em up stages, where you walk to the left, taking out any enemies you encounter (all the people you encounter are enemies, by the way), as well as destroying any barrels or crates you find, in the hopes of obtaining more fuel, food or water (to replenish you health), or ammo for your guns. If you don't visit the towns, you won't get any points, as they're totted up based on how many enemies you killed, your remaining fuel and health, and so on as you enter. But more importantly, you'll quickly run out of fuel! (Actually points are pretty important too, since you don't start with any extra lives and you can only get them through points).

If you run out of fuel, you'll come to a stop, and you'll have to do a beat em up stage on the road, which are much harder than the town ones, since there's now bikers trying to take your head off with chains, and you can only kill them with your shotgun, which has limited ammo. In the old days, I'd just keep driving until I reached one of these stages, then quickly get killed. I'm glad I gave it another shot as an adult, and finally figured it out, because Outlander is a pretty fun game!

It's no classic, and it has some big problems, like how the scenery during the driving sections never changes (I know you're driving through an endless wasteland, but with a bit of imagination you can easily come up with a few variants: toxic swamp, ruined city, dead forest, etc.), and how later on there's some unfair stuff like poisoned water that reduces your health, but it's definitely a game worth playing, and it's a shame it's not better known. I strongly recommend you also give it a try!

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Advanced Spanner-X -Endless Fire- (X68000)

The title might be bizarre, but unfortunately, the setting of this game is fairly standard, old-fashioned space shooter stuff. You're a spaceship, you shoot other spaceships. Luckily, however, it is a bit more interesting from a mechanical standpoint, and though it's a Japanese game on a system that was only ever released in Japan, it does make me wonder if the developers were fans of European-developed shooting games, like Xenon 2 et al.

There's a couple of reasons I say this. The first is that the game does suffer from that most stereotypical EuroSTG bugbear, lots and lots of bulletsponge enemies. The second, and most interesting, is that rather than your ship having one weapon that gradually powers up, or the ability to change weapons by collecting different items, you instead select your weapon before each stage. A lot of European shooting games have weapon shops for changing and upgrading one's weapon, though Spanner-X's system is a little different from that, too: you're given a selection of weapons from which to choose at the start of each stage, and the twist is that each can only be chosen once.

I guess the point of this is that there's a weapon that best matches each stage, and the player discovers the best order to use them through trial and error. I'm putting a lot of faith in the design skills of the developers with this theory, but I think it works out. There's definitely weapons that seem perfect for the first few stages, at least. It's not a system I like, but at least they're trying something different, I guess? And really, the biggest problem with this game is that first point: the enemies can all take a fair few shots, and they're mostly really small sprites too, so you constantly feel underpowered, which isn't a lot of fun, to be honest.

There is another, more interesting mechanical idiosyncracy in there too, though! Rather than giving you a health bar or a set number of lives, you're given a number of energy units, which not only act as hitpoints, but also temporary power-ups. You lose a unit of energy if you get hit, and you can also press the second button on your controller to expend a unit to power up your weapon for five seconds. Either way, when there's no energy left, it's game over. It's an interesting and unusual system, but even your powered up weapons still feel weak, so making the sacrifice never really feels worthwhile.

There's some other little notes to say about this game, like how the music is excellent (though this being both a shooting game and on the X68000, you could probably have predicted that), and the weird practice of how by default, the score's only displayed between stages, and you have to go into the options screen to turn on score display during play. Though it's an interesting and fairly original game, I can't really recommend Advanced Spanner X Endless Fire, as playing it just isn't fun or exciting. A disappointment.