Thursday, 26 March 2015

Simple DS Series Vol. 18: The Soukou Kihei Gunground

I've covered a fair few Simple Series games in the past, on the Playstation, PS2 and PSP, but the Simple DS Series warrants a bit of an extra introduction. Like all the other versions of the series, it's a long string of budget games that tend to have fairly generic titles with a few diamonds hidden in the rough. What's special about the Simple DS Series though, is that there seems to be a higher level of technical quality than you might expect from a budget series of games on the original DS. You might expect a lot of cheap-looking touchscreen minigame compilations, but there's a lot of polygon-heavy action games with pretty high production values.

The Soukou Kihei Gunground is an entry into what I feel is a pretty under-subscribed subgenre: military giant robot-themed action platformers whose progenitor is (as far as I know) Assault Suits Leynos. It has most of the common features: parts upgrading, a setting that seems heavily inspired by Soukou Kihei Votoms (obviously), even the missions have the same kinds of objectives and locations that other games have.

There's stages where the player just has to make their way from left to right, stages where every enemy has to be destroyed, stages where certain items have to be defended or destroyed or collected. And they take place in jungles, deserts, mountains, cities and secret bases. Upgrading is pretty simple, with a shop selling new weapons and parts, as well as healing items that can be used during play via the touch screen. (The touchscreen's only use in this game is for changing weapons and using items.) Menus are all in Japanese, but there's plenty of numbers and other visual representation, so navigation won't be too big a problem after you get used to things (and I'm assuming that most people who regularly read this blog can at least recognise the katakana for "save" and "load").

There's also ther option to change the colours of every indiviual part of your mecha, but unfortunately the developers have gone with a "realistic" look for the game, so no matter what colours the player picks, their mecha will still look like an ugly greyish pile of boxes. Most of the enemy mecha, at least, look like boldly coloured green or orange piles of boxes. I assume the developers of this particular title just had problems getting good 3D from the DS though, as all the backgrounds are pretty nice looking pixel art, all colourful and detailed.

The single player game is pretty good, and as I said, it's not a genre with a lot of options, especially on handhelds, but the game also has a pretty great multiplayer option. It actually has two multiplayer options, but the other one's a bit disappointing. They both allow download play with a single cartridge though, which is always nice.

Starting with the disappointment, there's the co-op mode. I was really looking forward to this mode before playing it, teaming up with some friends to smash enemy mecha sounded great, but unfortunately, the missions are so trivially easy with multiple players, there's no fun to be found here. The versus mode is a lot better though. It's pretty much as you'd imagine: each player enters into a small stage and wages battle until only one remains. Since all the available mecha are bipedal, it doesn't have the variety that the similar versus mode found in the SNES game Metal Warriors, but it does have the advantage of being on handhelds, so each player has their own screen.

Yeah, The Soukou Kihei Gunground is a pretty good game. I wouldn't pay a lot for it, but it's definitely worth a look if you happen across a copy going cheap.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Andorogynous (MSX)

Obviously, the title is a mistransliteration of the word "androgynous" from English in Japanese and then back again. But since there's no obvious gender-related themes in the game, I'll just assume that the developers were just going for a word that sounded sciencey and biological and this is the one they went with.

Anyway, the game's a vertically scrolling shooter with two twists: the scrolling goes down instead of up, and the player can only shoot to the left and right. The incongruity between the shooting and scrolling axes serves two purposes: the first, and most obvious is the mechanical purpose. When your enemies mainly come from above or below, having to maneuver youself to shoot them from the sides puts you at an automatic disadvantage. The second purpose is one of atmosphere: the player character's shooting range is ill-suited for their environment. Coupled with the fact that they are some kind of humanoid slowly floating down a hostile, biological pit, this helps create a feeling that the player is a fish-out-of-water, a soldier behind enemy lines in every sense.

Atmosphere is one of Adorogynous' strongest points, and the developers ( and more specifically, the artists) have really played to the MSX's strengths and weaknesses. The graphics are just detailed enough that you can see that everything around you is a living organism, including the walls and the shots your enemies fire at you, while at the same time are just vague enough to allow the player's imagination to fill in the blanks. What this does is give the impression of descending and being surrounded by a pulsating and oozing organic hell, even though a more detailed and more animated depiction of such would be beyond the host hardware.

The game itself is fun to play, though it is also brutally, unforgivingly difficult. I've completed Mushihimesama Futari on a single credit, but even after hours of play and dozens of attempts, I've yet to even see the second boss of Andorogynous. In the interest of fairness, I should point out that it's a testament to the game's quality that I even bothered to try so long and so hard before giving up. There's a couple of specific flaws that make the game even harder than its level design intends, too. Firstly, the power-ups tend to appear in the same places, but whih power-ups appear is totally random. In one particularly absurd case, the game started the second stage by giving me two extra lives. Secondly, there's an old bugbear typical of a shooting game this old, the "slippery slope" of losing all one's power-ups on death as well as being sent back to a checkpoint, meaning the loss of one life makes progress incredibly difficult. Finally, there's a weird bug I found. The best weapon power-up is the 2-way/3-way shot offered by a white letter L. Collecting once gives you 2-way shots, collecting twice gives 3-way.Collecting a third, however, demotes the player back to a single stream of shots.

In conclusion, I can only really recommend Andorogynous if you're looking for a true challenge. It is a good game, that' high in quality in most respects, but like I said, it's brutally, insanely hard.