Thursday, 31 December 2015

Baluba-Louk no Densetsu (Arcade)

So, Balouba-Louk no Densetsu is a 1986 platformer that combines ideas from an earlier age of arcade games, along with ideas shared by its contempories. From the earlier age, it has a lot of mechanics that you'll recognise from Pac-Man and its imitators: your goal in each stage is to collect all the points items and avoid the enemies chasing you (in this case, they appear to be brightly coloured octopodes). Also, there's an item in each stage that turns the enemies into points items for a short time, which double in value for each one you manage to collect.

Its more contempory influences are more widespread but mainly, they appear to be Super Mario Bros and Bubble Bobble. From Mario, the game takes the idea of hitting blocks from below: hitting a treasure chest from below causes it to open, and opened treasure chests are worth more points when collected. Furthermore, an opened treasure chest might sprout a flower, and hitting it again will cause the flower to bloom. Obviously, bloomed flower chests are worth even more points. Opened chests will also leave a bomb in their place, and if the player jumps from a block with a bomb on top, the bomb will be lit, and any enemies caught in the explosion will be paralysed for a few seconds. Bloomed flowers, when collected, leave a different item, and when this item is jumped from, it fires shots to the left and right, which turn enemies into one of eight different power-ups, each with different effects, like adding portals or an extra "power pill" item to the stage, or just giving the player a few extra points.

It's this whole business with the flowers and opening chests and so on that I'm considering the influence of Bubble Bobble (and other arcade games of the time), that is, that though the game seems simple on the surface, there are various hidden and semi-hidden ways of scoring extra points, doing away with enemies, and so on. I often find myself saying on this blog the phrase "it's a shame this game wasn't more popular", and it applies to this game, too, as though it did get a Famicom-only sequel, had it been more popular, there might be more documentation around of the various secrets that might be hidden within (or maybe I'm just assuming too much of the game, and the reason it never took off in a big way, despite being a fun, well made game,  is because there aren't any secrets and it didn't hold players' attention for long).

Balouba-Louk no Densetsu is a decent enough little game, and I recommend you give it a shot. As an aside, the text on the title screen "Baluba-Louk was discovered in 1985" made me wonder if it was inspired by some real ruins or something that might have been discovered that year, but no, that's just regular old flavour text.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Olteus II (X68000)

One thing I usually hate is levelling up and buying equipment in action games. The worst cases are almost always beat em ups, a genre that has been completely killed in recent years by developers choosing to replace interesting mechanics and design with endless grinding and enemies that can only be defeated using moves that are only useful for defeating those specific enemies. But I'm going on a bit of an unrelated rant here, as though Olteus II has both experience levels and a weapon shop, they actually make the game more compelling. Plus it's a shooting game, not a beat em up.

In fact, the way the game seems to encourage, rather than punish continuing in contradiction to the genre's norm, it can possibly be considered a kind of dialogue-free action RPG that takes a shooting game-like form. For shooting enemies, you gain experience points and gold. Levelling up via experience increases the amount of hits you can take before dying, and increases the power of your default gun and your charge weapon. You also start the game with two options which do nothing alone. This is where the gold comes into play: there's a shop with a variety of different weapons, and different power levels for each of those weapons, and you can equip a different weapon to each one of the options.

The game's split (as far as I can tell, as I haven't completed it yet) into two planets, of four stages each, and a final techno-organic spaceship with a single stage. The stages on each planet can be done in any order, though you have to complete one planet to go to the next. There's also a system of "days" in effect. You start with 999 days to complete your mission, and every time you play a stage, whether successful or not, takes up one day. I really don't know what happens if you run out of days, as getting to the final stage, maxing out my level and getting enough gold to buy every weapon took about 20-something days and an hour and a half. It'd take superhuman levels of both incompetence and persistence to get through 999 days.

The game's presentation is definitely a strong point. The menus all look great, with little diagrams for the weapons in the shop, and thumbnail illustrations of each stage on the stage select screen. Ingame, it looks really great and very colourful, and though it's a minor shame there isn't any parallax, it does look amazing for an independently-produced videogame from 1991. The music was a surprise, as it sounds like it was influenced more by western computer game music, rather than the arcade and console influences you see in most X68000 games (and especially shooting games).

In summary, Olteus II's idiosyncracies mean it won't be something you'll play for years to come like the more orthodox high-quality shooting games on the X68000, like Cho Ren Sha 68k and the like, but it is an entertaining way to pass a couple of hours.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Burning Angels (PC)

Firstly, this game has nothing (as far as I can tell) to do with the theme song from Sonic Team's firefighting classic Burning Rangers. Instead, it's an all-female fighting game themed around pro-wrestling. It's obviously a very low budget indie game, and it's very barebones, with nothing more than a single-player story mode and a versus mode on offer. There's also only one background in the game, though each character does have their own theme tune.

It's got some nice mechanics of its own, though, so it isn't just some throwaway vanilla fighter with a wrestling-themed lick of paint. The player has five buttons: a taunt, and hard and light variants of strikes and throws. Unfortunately, the throw buttons aren't very interesting on their own, just performing an irish whip to the side of the screen. But with typical special move direction inputs, they allow each character to have a few special throws, and even super throws. In keeping with the wresting theme, normal strikes do very little damage, and strike specials generally not much more, placing a stronger emphasis on throws than combos. The throw buttons are also used for parrying throws, while strikes are blocked in the usual manner of holding back

The game's strongest point is probably the way it looks: big sprites, bold colours and an oddly smooth style of animation that brings to mind the french tv cartoon Wakfu. The character designs are pretty varied, too: rather than the usual tactic seen in the likes of Stardust Suplex of using real-life wrestlers with the names changed, Burning Angels uses exaggerated cartoonish characters, and though some of them seem a little fetishistic (a leather-clad sadistic heel, a skinny, flat-chested catgirl, etc.), they're mostly okay, and pretty varied too. There's a typical heroic wrestler (very reminiscent of Rumble Roses' protagonist Reiko), a long-legged woman with a heavily kick-based offence, and a female Ultraman parody, among others.

It'll probably never happen, but Burning Angels is a game I'd really like to see some high-level versus play of. I think the emphasis on throws, and the Irish whip move that doesn't really have an analogue in other games would make for interesting viewing. It's worth a look if you want to play a fighting game that's a little different from the norm, though probably only if you have other humans to fight against.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Snezhaja Koroleva (Arcade)

So, here's a game that was made in the Soviet Union (specifically Ukraine, I believe), for a Soviet audience. Though it was released in 1988, it's apparently based on a 1957 animated film, itself based on Hans Christian Andersen's story The Snow Queen. I haven't seen that movie, but I'm sure it can't be the worst animated adaptation that story's received.

Though some might hold lazy stereotypes about technology in the USSR being primitive in comparision to that of the rest of the world, graphically, Snezhaja Koroleva appears to be on a par with what a lot of videogames looked like in 1988. I definitely wouldn't look too out of place on the Master System or maybe even as a budget-priced Amiga release of that period.

Of course, in terms of aesthetics and game mechanics, it was probably developed in a state of relative isolation from its Japanese, American and Western European peers, and as a result, it has a fairly different structure and feel to it. It's essentially a collection of single-screen mini-games.

You play as Gerda, out to find her missing friend Kay, and on each screen, the goal is to reach the top-right corner, with each screen providing its own obstacles. Oddly, though most of the screens are platformers, the first is a maze, that has you avoiding monsters while picking up roses before heading to the corner to exit. There's some thing of a "Game and Watch" quality to the rest of the screens, as they focus on avoiding or navigating various obstacles, sometimes requiring frame-perfect timing. I was going to say that the game's easy to get through, after I managed it on my second attempt, but then on every subsequent attempt, I totally failed, so who knows? I also had a theory that the game was "allowed" to be easy and just tell a story because it was developed outside of capitalism and the profit motive demanding a challenging coin-muncher. But I guess my own ineptitude has put paid to that idea.

As it is, and as it often is with old games developed outside the "usual" game-developing regions, Snezhaja Koroleva (or Снежная королева, if you like) is more of an endearing curiosity than an unearthed lost classic. Still, it's nice that games like these are preserved for everyone to play, isn't it?

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Net Yaroze Round-Up Vol. 6!

The Comedian Adventure (Taro Kamon, 1998)
A minimalist one-button platform game that seems to have "borrowed" its heroes from the scatological PC Engine game Kato-chan and Ken-chan (AKA JJ & Jeff). Pressing any button makes your guy jump forwards at an angle, releasing the button or hitting the top of the screen makes him fall forwards at a slightly steeper angle. You have sixty seconds to get as far as you can without falling into any holes. If you fall into a hole, you get a speech bubble with some sage advice like "Finish your homework!" or "Brush your teeth!". It's mildly amusing for a few minutes, until you manage to survive the full minute.

Anda (Makoto Okuzumi, 1997)
A very old-fashioned shooting game that's obviously very inspired by the likes of Xevious and Star Soldier. There's no sound, and it's generally not very exciting at all. The worst part, though, is that the enemy bullets are incredibly tiny and often blend into the background. It seems competently made, but not very well-designed.

Minic The Hedgehog (Kiyoshi Sakai, 1997)
This is apparently a port of an X68000 doujin game, though I haven't been able to find that version. It's more of a tech demo than an actual game, too, being as it is an attempt at making a semi-clone of the first Sonic The Hedgehog game. It's mostly impressive, too, as there's a decent attempt at replicating Sonic physics, though it just falls a tiny bit short . That tiny bit makes a lot of difference, though, and the result is that it's almost impossible to build up the momentum needed to run up even the shallowest of inclines. Another problem is that the screen is flanked on all sides by massive black borders (which I've cropped ouit of the screenshots for this post, to make things look a bit nicer).

Dance Of Death (Shigeaki Matsumoto, 1998)
This polygonal top-dpwn beat em up does performs a trick that many of the best games of the 32-bit era do: uses its low-poly models, short draw distance and small memory space for textures to create an atmosphere. You play as a lone samurai, beseiged on all sides by your enemies, who has to fight his way out. There's a timer and a number counting down the amount of remaining enemies, but the game's hard enough that I've not yet managed to survive long enough for either one to make it to zero. Like I said, it's an atmospheric game, and tense too, as you and your enemies can be taken out in only a couple of sword strokes, and there are far more of them than there are of you. Definitely worth a look.

My Flower (Makoto Okuzumi, 1997)
A brightly-dressed young girl on a series of floating islands inhabited by angry crabs and friendly chickens must make flowers grow, flags fly and eggs hatch by dancing around them. The colours and simple graphics remind me of early Namco games, like Toypop and Pac-Land. The main problem this game has is that it's not immediately obvious what the player is supposed to do or avoid. Though I managed to get a couple of stages in, I did so without ever figuring out the exact win conditions for each stage. Avoid this one, I say. (I feel like I'm being a little hard on ol' Makoto's games in this post. If you search your own name and find it, I'm really sorry!)

Friday, 4 December 2015

Koma (X68000)

Koma, or Beigoma, are a kind of traditional Japanese wooden spinning top. In this game, you play as one in the odd situation of having to collect exclamation marks while trying to stay to moving platforms above an endless black void. Each stage has a different set of platforms, and though they move in the same patterns every time, the exclamation marks appear in random positions.

The biggest strength of Koma is that the aesthetics and mechanics are inseperably intertwined: because anything that's not black is safe ground, the more complex and psychedelic a stage looks, generally the more difficult it'll be. The stages were each obviously designed with this in mind, each having both its own look and an individual set of challenges and tests of dexterity in navigating to different areas of the screen.

The thing you have to try and do is to stop seeing the different coloured platforms as seperate entities and instead to see the gaps between them as shifting and warping things to avoid. But then again, after a few stages, you'll start to be presented with very small platforms, and single pixel-width bridges, so that advice doesn't really hole up in those situations.

The old cliche "easy to play, difficult to master" definitely applies to Koma, and it's definitely worth playing, at least until the difficulty starts to try your patience.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Pilot Kids (Arcade)

Pilot Kids is a third party game for SEGA's famous and beloved Model 2 arcade hardware, from Psikyo. Though it's a shooting game, as you'd expect of Psikyo, it's pretty different to most of Psikyo's shooters, in terms of both looks and mechanics. On both fronts, I'd say the Psikyo game it's closest to is their weird Space Invaders parody Space Bomber, with it's quirky looks and multi-kill based scoring system.

It's a horizontal shooter, about two kids who get shrunk down, and fly toy planes to fight off all the other toys, insects and other assorted household objects that have come to life in a hostile manner. The players have two weapons at their disposal: a normal machine gun and lock-on homing missiles. The machine gun is almost useless as an offensive weapon, though it does have the useful property of being able to destroy the orange bullets the enemies fire (which, for the first few stages, is all they fire. Towards the end of stage 4, indestructable blue bullets will also find their way into the enemy's patterns). The missiles, then, are your main method of attack, and they're slightly more complicated than most hoing weapons.

Pressing the second button fires a marker, and the player can mark three to six enemies at once (depending on how many power-ups you have). Pressing the main fire button when at least one enemy is marked fires a missile that'll pass through any marked enemies, as well as any others in its way. The missiles are also the key to the scoring system. The first enemy killed by a missile will award double points, the next quadruple, and so on, up to a multiplier of sixty-four.

Though it's not up there with the likes of Cave's games, or even Psikyo's best, Pilot Kids is pretty fun, and has a nice selection of gimmicks. If it had ever got a sequel that refined things a bit and had slightly more exciting stages, such a game would probably be a classic.

There is also an additional mystery connected to this game, though: after a game ends, and you've inputted your initials, there's a counter that starts at a billion points, and depletes by however many points you scored. It keeps track of this every time you play, and I've managed to hack away a little over twenty million points so far. I have no idea what happens when the counter reaches zero, and apparently, no-one else on the internet has tried to find out, either.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Hard Brain (Playstation)

This was just going to be part of another Net Yaroze round up (and I do still intend to do one of those in the near future), but I totally fell in love with this game and thought it deserved more than a single paragraph. It's a cyberpunk-themed turn-based strategy game, and though it's entirely in Japanese, it seems to be about a small gang of three guys either raiding some high-tech offices or escaping from some high-tech offices that are under siege.

Mechaically, it's pretty simple: to win, you pretty much just have to try and avoid letting any of your guys get surrounded by the enemy, and keep an eye on their HP so that you know when to heal (every one of your characters has one spell, which is for healing, and plenty of MP to use it whenever it's needed). It's also only a few stages long, which is a shame, as it has enough charm in its aesthetics alone, and it'd be nice to see more of the great sprites and character portraits.

It feels, however, that the creator had to cut a lot back in creating the game, since as I'm sure you're all aware, Net Yaroze games had to fit entirely into the Playstation's tiny RAM. There's a bunch of options that are never used, as well as spells for each character that are, as far as I can tell, permanently greyed-out and unusable. I managed to find the creator's website on the internet archive, in the hopes that they might have made a lengthier, more fleshed out version for PC or something, but all I found was the download for this version.

Hard Brain is a game that's definitely worth playing, especially since it'll only take up about 15 minutes of your time for a full playthrough (of which i've had a few at this point). People hold up Team Fatal's Terra Incognita as the Yaroze game that's closest to "commercial quality", but look at the screenshots for Hard Brain and you can't deny that at least in terms of presentation it could stand alongside the likes of Breath of Fire III or Persona and no-one could tell it was the work of a solitary hobbyist.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Curiosities Vol. 5 - Yukawa Moto Senmu no Okatara Ikushi (Dreamcast)

This post can't really be called a review, sincwe to be honest, there's no good reason to play this game unless you're in Japan with an internet-connected Dreamcast during March and April 1999. That's because it was given away free with Dreamcasts back then (or sold for a low price), and it's part of a competition to win real prizes.

You play as the eponymous Mr. Moto, and you roam around a small island digging holes. In those holes, you find sixths of various photos of SEGA and Dreamcast-related items. You get 100 chances to dig, and as far as I can tell, the pieces you find are totally random. The point of the game is to take your 100 chances to dig and hope that you find the right pieces to make full pictures. Apparently, you could then go online to win the prizeswhose pictures you'd filled in.

You can play more than once, but the pieces you find don't carry over through multiple playthroughs. Apparently this was a pretty high-stakes game, since one of the pictures is of a car key, and I read online that there was also a large cash prize too. (Though, doesn't Japan have really strict anti-gambling laws that ban cash prizes? I don't know.)

Like I said, there's literally no reason to play this anymore, but it stands as a piece of SEGA ephemera, and yet another item of proof that for everything else you could accuse them of, you could never say they were ever short on ideas.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Miracle! Panzou - 7-Tsu no Hoshi no Uchuu Kaizoku

I think that means "Space Pirates of the Seven Stars", but I could be wrong. Anyway, it's a combination shooting game and platformer, and though it looks and feels like it might be based on some anime aimed at little kids, I haven't found any actual evidence that it might be.

Anyway, each world has three parts. The first is flying to the world by spaceship, represented by a short and very easy vertical shooting section. Then, you land on the world, and walk around a top-down map with a vacuum cleaner sucking up little creatures and finding the entrances to the actual stages. The actual stages come in platform form. On the map, there are doors with orbs on them, with stages behind them. At the end of each stage there's an orb, and the doors open when you have as many orbs as they're displaying. So progression between stages is totally linear (not that that's a problem or anything, but the map sections add nothing else to the game). The last door on the map leads to the boss.

Miracle! Panzou is a nice looking game, and it's fairly fun to play at first, but it does have some pretty big problems. Firstly, there's one of the worst problems with a lot of post-2000 videogames: pointless tutorials for everything. It mainly only effects the first stage (with exceptions when you gain a new ability, though there's no real reason why those abilities couldn't have been available from the start anyway, another modern game design nuisance), but there, your play will be interrupted so you can be told how to shoot, jump and pretty much every other action, no matter how basic. There's also the problem that I feel bad about bringing up, since it feels so subective: the games is just way too easy. Like I'm sure you have, I've read that criticism being given out by all sorts of idiots, from those who don't understand the point of Kirby games, to those who think credit feeding through an arcade port on the easiest settings means they've seen all it has to offer.

Miracle! Panzou just doesn't feel like even the slightest challenge at any point. I played through the first two worlds, which took about 20-30 minutes, and there were no hard parts, no progression in difficulty from one world to the next, nothing. The new abilities that were obtained weren't really any use except as "keys" (the double jump appears just before the first time you reach a platform that's just out of reach for a single jump, the charge punch appears just before you reach a statue that has to be smashed to progress, and other than similar specific situations, there's no uses for them). It just felt like the game was wasting my time and I might as well have been watching a tv show while mindlessly pressing buttons. Looking at the game's aesthetics, it was probably made with a younger audience in mind, but to me, that's not a valid excuse. There's plenty of games suitable for children, while still being challenging and interesting. A game like Miracle! Panzou, however, just feels insulting.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Pachinko! (Odyssey2)

To most of us in the west, pachinko is hated and feared: a graveyard where once-beloved franchises and publishers go when they die.  But there is also movement in the other direction, that is, videogames that are themselves based on pachinko machines (though it seems to me that the genre's heyday was in the late 80s on the Famicom and PC Engine, I'm far from an expert on the genre, so I could be wrong.). Pachinko! might be the very first pachinko videogame, and it's a western-developed game, too!

I say "might be" for two reasons, though: the first being that I can't rule out some unknown pachinko game existing on some Japanese hobbyist computer, lost to the mists of time, and the second being the fact that it's a very loose interpretation of the concept. For those of you that don't know, in pachinko, the player controls the speed of many balls being fired into a vaguely pinball-esque table in the hopes that they enter various holes and activate various gimmicks (like slot machines and so on) on their way down.

Pachinko! works very differently, changing the game and turning it into a strange 2-player psuedo-sport. How it works is that there are two players at the bottom of the screen, armed with sticks and seperated by a small green pyramid. Above them are five bucket-like things with numbers between zero and ten in them, as well as a small blue interloper who catches any balls they come across and throws them downwards at a random angle. There's two balls, and they bounce around and get hit by the players' sticks. When a ball is hit by a player's stick, it changes to match the colour of that player, and when a ball goes in one of the buckets, the matching player gains as many points as the number in the bucket. If a ball hits the small green pyramid, all the numbers in the buckets randomise. Unfortunately, it never feels like you have any real control over where the balls go, or pretty much anything that happens in the game. After either player reaches a multiple of 100 points, the screen flashes different colours or a few seconds, before resuming. It doesn't actually end until you stop playing.

Pachinko! really can't be recommended as anything other than a historical curiosity. It's boring, completely random and very basic.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Socket (Mega Drive)

So, if you only know one thing about this game, you'll know that it's a blatant Sonic clone, to an extent that no other game before it had been. Every other review I've read of this game, whether it was in a magazine at the time of its release, or on the internet many years later, has focussed entirely on that fact, and then descended into tedious hyperbole about how terrible and unplayable the game is. The fact is, Socket is a very flawed game, and a very unoriginal game, but it does have a few ideas of its own, and it is a fun game to play.

The eponymous character is a weird kind of time-travelling electric duck from the future, who has to stop an evil time-travelling winged fox called Time Dominator from doing evil stuff throughout history. Socket can run, jump and kick, and has an energy meter that serves as a combined time limit and health bar, something usually only seen in games where the player controls a vehicle of some kind.

But the stage themes tread the familiar platform game ground of grassy place, lava caves, factory, futuristic city, and so on.  Stages come in sets of three, though each stage of the three fills an explicit role: The first stage will be a "High Speed Zone", which always takes place in an amazing-looking future city, and is what it sounds like: go really really fast util you get to the end. It's not challenging, but there is a good sensation of speed as you whizz around. The second will be Athletic, a pretty traditional action-platform stage, with a focus on running and jumping and so on. The third part of each set of stages is the "Labyrinth", a huge, sprawling stage with puzzles and traps and so on, with the emphasis being on actually finding your way to the end of the stage.

As for how Socket plays, it's mostly pretty good. Definitely leagues ahead of the other "poor man's Sonic", Bubsy, at least. There's a few moments where the cracks begin to show: for example, there are lots of very Sonic-esque places in stages that use ramps and momentum and even running up walls, but they're just a little bit too stiff and unco-operative, and jumping from non-flat surfaces can sometimes feel strange an unpredictable. Another problem is that it's incredibly easy, even compared to the Sonic games, which themselves aren't incredibly challenging. Socket's massive heath bar, means there's very little consequence to getting hit, so you can just speed your way through stages, ignoring enemies, spikes, lava pits, and so on. You're likely to complete it on your first or second attempt.

If I were to compare Socket to any game, I would actually choose the Playstation 3D action game Speed Power Gunbike. Though SPGB hides it better, there's a shared thread between the two games of being Sonic-inspired attempts at high-speed action games that are just almost great, being held back by a few small, but damning flaws. Also like SPGB, I'd recommend Socket to anyone who has an interest in a kind of alternate interpretation of the Sonic games' ideas.
This game is also known as Time Dominator 1st