Sunday, 27 March 2016

Curiosites Vol. 7 - Two Bad Neighbours

It's often said that the main strength of the UK microcomputer era is that anyone could make a game about anything, and get it published. The same also applied to licenced games: any TV show or movie could be made into a videogame, as long as it was even moderately popular at the time.
According to legend, the Australian soap Neighbours is actually more popular in the UK than it is in its homeland, and much of that audience is teenagers (I watched it a lot during my teenage years, even!). So there's an Amiga game based on it. Two, actually, one licensed and one a fangame. A fangame based on a TV soap opera over two decades ago! Unfortunately, they're both from the early 90s, roughly a decade before I was watching, so they'll mainly feature characters and stories that I've never even heard of. 
First up, I'll talk about the official game. It's a racing game, you play as some teenager on a skateboard, and your opponents are other teenagers, pretty evenly divided between boys and girls, riding skateboards, go-karts, bikes and so on. You race around the block, scoring points by going between traffic cones and collecting food. There's also obstacles all over the place, which are the kind of thing you'd expect to see in a version of Paperboy set in a very stereotypical version of Australia: cars, people walking around, and open manholes alongside Kangaroos and Emus (I don't remember ever seeing either of those animals in an episode of Neighbours, though maybe it was different back then?). It's mildly amusig for a few goes, but nothing you'd ever want to play for an extended period, and I don't think the novelty would warrant actually going to a shop and buying it. It does look very nice, though: very bright colours and charming little sprites. 
The fangame is known by the longer title Neighbours: The Adventure, and the title's pretty descriptive, since it's an adventure game based on Neighbours. The inro tells you that the evil capitalist Paul Robinson has bought all the land on which Ramsey Street stands and wants to evict everyone and sell it off for a profit, and you have to stop him.  
I'll have to make an admission here and say that not only am I not really a fan of adventure games, I'm also not very good at them. As a result, I quickly got bored of fruitlessly clicking on things hoping to make something happen and got nowhere. The presentation is nice, though, with low-res digitised photos and actual music from the show, though the few points that use animation do look ridiculous. Generally, though, it looks and feels more professional than the official game. I guess if you like adventure games and want something with a mundane surburban setting, look it up?  
I didn't really go into either of these games expecting them to be good, I just thought it was an odd footnote in history that an Australian soap managed to somehow get two videogames made out of it, and both for a market literally on the other side of the world. I wouldn't recommend wasting your time on either of them, to be honest.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Palamedes (Arcade)

This is a game I originally encountered in the form of its Game Boy port, which was on the 32-in-1 pirate cart I had as a kid, and have mentioned several times on this blog previously. Unfortunately, the Game Boy version is a pretty bad port, for reasons I'll get into later, so I'm reviewing the original arcade release instead.

Anyway, Palamedes is a "matching stuff as it descends from the 'bove"-type puzzle game. This time you're not matching colours, but sides of a die. In a similar manner to Magical Drop (though predating that series by a few years), you control a little character at the bottom of the screen, who holds a six-sided die above their head. Pressing one button cycles through the sides of the die, and the other throws it upwards, where rows of dice are steadily advancing downwards. You throw the die at other die showing the same face to make them disappear. When the advancing rows reach the bottom of the screen, it's game over. There's a solitary score attack mode, as well as versus modes where you can compete against another human player, or a series of AI opponents.

And, were I reviewing the Game Boy port, that's where the description would end, as that port omits the most interesting aspect of the game: the fact that by clearing dice in the right order, you create simple mahjong-esque "hands", that can be used to clear several lines of descending dice at once. There's a whole bunch of different hands to get, from simply getting the same number three or more times in a row, to getting all the numbers one to six in order, and a bunch of others in between.

Clearing lines in this way is by far the best way of scoring points, and in all modes, clearing a certain number of lines is the way to advance the level. In the competitive modes, clearing lines via your hands is also the way you attack your opponent: lines you clear are added to their field at the same time. Without this whole thing, the Game Boy port is not only a lot less interesting, it's also so difficult as to be almost unplayable.

This is the arcade version, though, and it's a game i definitely recommend giving a try. There's also a sequel on the Famicom that I haven't played, and there are a few ideas I feel would add to the game, so that's something I'll be looking into and probably covering here at some point in the future too.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Dancing Sword (X68000)

Firstly, I'll apologise for the kind of lacklustre screenshots attatched to this review. Dancing Sword is a very fast-paced game, and that fact, combined with the very small sprites it uses, makes for poor-quality stills. Anyway, in this game, you choose between a knife, a sword, and a meat cleaver, and your chosen weapon will spin and fly around the screen at your behest, slicing up monsters. The three weapons take the usual positions of fast and weak, average on both counts, and slow but powerful. With that in mind, you should go for the cleaver everytime: the slow speed makes it a lot easier to control than the others, and its extra power means less hassle taking care of enemies that need multiple hits.

Of course, the game would have almost no challenge at all if you could just fly around the screen chopping things up willy-nilly, especially since your weapon is indestructible. The challenge comes in the form of elements. Pressing one button on the controller sets your blade alight, while the other makes it really cold. The game gradually introduces types of enemies that can only be killed by freezing or burning them, as well as enemies that change colour and weakness every few seconds. Hitting an enemy in the wrong form makes you bounce harmlessly off it, immobilising you for a second, which is a big disadvantage, since each stage has a time limit (though you can just re-try as many times as you have patience for).

There's also boss fights every five stages. The first boss is pretty much just an enemy that takes a ton of hits to take down, but as the game goes on, the game's bosses really start to test your reactions more and more. The third boss, for example, is a group of five flying swords, that fly across the screen in a random direction every couple of seconds, with a randomly-coloured jetstream behind them, that's also different for each sword, each time. To damage the swords, you have to hit it with the element that matches their stream (with yellow representing a neutral blade). Even with the extra attack power of the cleaver, this boss is incredibly difficult to beat in the time limit, and it's all thanks to that infamous ugbear that crops up time and time again on this blog: randomness. It's frustrating, and feels like the only way to beat the swords is through a combination of superhuman reflexes and incredibly good luck.

But even ignoring the luck aspect, this boss fight also brings up another problem: sometimes blue enemies are killed with fire and vice versa, killing them with the opposite element. Sometimes enemies have to be killed with the element that matches their colour.  It's inconsistent and annoying. The game is pretty frustrating in general, just thanks to its very nature: tiny sprites flying around the screen at high speeds, and strict time limits and all that stuff. But like I said, selecting the cleaver does temper that a little.

Dancing Sword is a pretty original game, and could probably be really good in the hands of a slightly more skilled designer. As it is, it's a better idea than it is a game, unfortunately. Maybe there's a sequel out there somewhere that addresses its issues, waiting to be discovered?

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Fightin' Spirit (Amiga)

Now, I don't mean to badmouth the Amiga when I say this, but Fightin' Spirit is one of the best-presented titles I've seen on the system, and it wouldn't look out of place on the SNES or Mega Drive a few years earlier. It's harsh, but it's true: by the time the 90s were in full swing, the gap in budget and size of development team between console/arcade games and Amiga games was at the point where, even with the more powerful hardware of the A1200, Amiga games were starting to look very dated in comparison.

This is a really well-presented game, though. There's menus full of options (which I'll get to later), big colourful fonts, character portraits, and all the stuff you'd expect from a post Street Fighter II fighting game. There's a bunch of different fighters, though they're mostly from the US, for some reason, with one guy each coming from Thailand, China, Japan and India. Plus there's a tiger from parts unknown and a dinosaur that, for some reason, hails from Brazil. Did Blanka make the developers assume that Brazil was just a land of monsters or something? Bizarre. The game's storyline gimmick is that all the human characters have "animal spirits" that appear over their bodies when they do certain special moves, which looks kind of like Joe's Tiger Knee from SNK's games, but with a whole bunch of different animals. Of particular interest is the token female character, Sheila, who has the dolphin as her animal spirit, but can also summon and throw ethereal starfish at her opponents.

Like I said earlier, there's a lot of options in this game. Some are taken from more popular games, like the King of Fighters-esque team battle mode, and the Deathmatch mode from World Heroes 2, with it's momentum-based shared health bar. There's also control options for one and two button controllers, and, more usefully, the four-button CD32 controller. There's also some odder options, like the option to either choose your opponent in single-player mode, or fight opponents in random order, and the inexplicable option to turn off special moves.

Well, once you start to play the game, that last option won't seem entirely inexplicable. One of the biggest problems this game has is that even if you have a movelist handy, specials just can't be performed reliably. The biggest problem, though, is that the fights aren't very exciting. Everything feels stiff, stilted and awkward, and the fact that specials only come out some of the time only adds to that feeling. Of course, the AI players can perform specials perfectly everytime, and they do. Repeatedly.

Fightin' Spirit might be better than the infamously bad Amiga ports of Street Fighter II, but compare it to any of its contempories on other formats, and it doesn't hold up well at all. I know those games had more powerful host hardware, bigger budgets and bigger, more experienced development teams, but it's the way it plays that lets Fightin' Spirit down, not the graphics or production values.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Simple 1500 Series Vol. 35: The Shooting (Playstation)

I said it in my review of another Simple Series game with a very to-the-point title, Vol. 24: The Gun Shooting, but this game isn't as generic as you'd expect. Not only does it have a plot told in (thankfully skippable) FMV cutscenes between stages, but there's also little bits of voice-acted dialogue between your pilot and their comrades as you play through the stages themselves. As well as there being more plot and more effort put into the presentation than you'd expect, it's also a pretty full-featured (if not particularly original) horizontal shooter that gives the player lots of attack options.

But before I get onto how it plays, i'll talk a little bit more about how it looks. Now, the difficulty spikes massively in the third stage, and as a result, I haven't been able to get past that stage's boss. But, those three stages display either a love of the game's contemporaries, or a lack of shame in ripping them off, depending on how cynical you are. For example, the first stage takes place in a futuristic cityscape reminiscent of Einhander, the second over and under an idyllic ocean that calls to mind G-Darius, and the third a desert with a brief foray into an underground technological tunnel that vaguely reminded me of Thunderforce V, but only a little. All of this in that "low-poly models with low-resolution textures" aesthetic with which I'm sure all my discerning readers are enamoured.

Though the game doesn't have any power-ups, the player does start with an array of different weapons that really really remind me of Thunderforce V (as an aside, The Shooting was apparently developed by two companies called CyberDreams and C.I.I, and I haven't been able to find anything else they worked on. I guess there's a chance that those are psuedonyms for ex-Tecnosoft employees, but this is pure conjecture on my part). You have a machine gun, fired from the front of your ship, and from two options. By moving left or right while not shooting, the two options can be moved around the ship, allowing the player to shoot i wide angles, as well as above, below and behind. You've also got a lock-on weapon, which can shoot up to sixteen guided missiles in a nice Itano Circus-esque fashion. Unfortunately, it takes so long to fire that you'll usually have killed all the enemies with your machine gun by the time the missiles reach them (it's useful in boss fights, though). Finally, you have a forward-firing giant, powerful laser that's limited by a power meter at the top of the screen. The power meter recharges in a matter of seconds, but the catch is that it's shared with another, non-offensive feature of your ship: a quick dodging move that can pass harmlessly through enemy bullets.

What ties all these weapons and features together is a control system that's simple and elegant. Square fires your machine gun, holding X locks on your missiles and releasing fires them, and the dodge and laser are assigned to the two right shoulder buttons. It's obviously designed around the idea that the player will spend much of the game holding down the square button, but will also need regular, comfortable and instant access to the others (which wouldn't have been the case had all four functions been assigned to the Playstation controller's four face buttons). It's a little thing, but it's done so well that I feel it's worth mentioning.

Simple 1500 Series Vol. 35: The Shooting is a pretty good game. It's nothing particularly spectacular or original, and the sudden upturn in difficulty presented by stage 3 is a pain, but it's much better than a budget title with a generic title really needs or deserves to be. Apparently, it also got a western release as "Shooter: Space Shot", which somehow feels like an even worse title. I don't know how intact the US version is, though, as we all know that western budget publishers loved to meddle in games, especially shooting games.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Crimewave (Saturn)

So, Crimewave is a game from pretty early in the Saturn's life, and it's a UK-developed game! No-one ever talks about western-developed Saturn games. Except Deathtank, obviously. It set in some kind of horrible dystopian future britain, which is apparently run by the Conservatives (as you'd expect any British dystopia to be), as the police force have not only been privatised and run for profit, but they can also get away with "accidentally" murdering random passers-by with only the feeblest of penalties.

Of course, you play as one of these mercenary cops, driving around the streets until the red arrow appears, pointing you towards your quarry. You get one hundred Meks (the currency of the future (at least it's not "credits")) for every perp you kill. The penalty for killing passers-by is a relatively meager 5 Meks a pop, by the way, and that only comes into play once you've already killed a few. At every multiple of 500 Meks, the gate to the next area opens, and you go there to hunt down and kill criminals. A couple of areas in, you also have rival cops to deal with, who not only want to kill the criminals, but also stop you from doing so. The "free market" in action!

The problem is that though it looks sort of similar to the first two Grand Theft Auto games, while driving was fun and exciting in those games, with their handbrake turns and trivial crashes, it's a pain in Crimewave. Every bump with another vehicle knocks you back some way, and every bump with a stationery object brings you to a standstill and forces you to awkwardly reverse out of the situation. All this while you're also chasing criminal vehicles that can go pretty fast right from the start of the game. It leads to an incredibly frustrating experience, and if you let an enemy get out of sight, an incredibly tedious one too, as you're left futilely chasing an enemy car that's just slightly off screen.

It seems like the developers wanted to make an exciting, fast-paced futuristic car-chase/shooting action game, and while it's a great idea, the execution is just a little bit off. It's so annoying, too, as Crimewave is so close to being a hidden Saturn classic.