Monday, 30 January 2017

Dreammix TV World Fighters (Gamecube)

So, when Super Smash Bros Melee came out on the Gamecune and proved to be a massive hit, way bigger than its N64 forebear, there were a few me-too platform fighting games that tried to ride its coattails, mostly licensed from popular anime of the time like Digimon, Groove Adventure Rave or Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo. Dreammix TV World Fighters is even more of a Smash Bros wannabe than those games, as like Smash Bros, it's a big crossover, and it actually pre-empts the more famous series in two ways: it's a multi-company crossover, and it features Solid Snake as a playable character!

Yes, it's a crossover featuring characters from the videogame publisher Hudson Soft (providing characters from Bomberman, Bloody Roar and others), the toymakers Takara (represented by Transformers, Beyblade and some dolls) and the pachinko machine manufacturers* Konami (who probably have the most recoginsable line-up, having characters from Gradius, Twinbee, Castlevania, and some baseball series alongside the famous Mr. Dave Snake). Like most of these games, it doesn't use a traditional health bar system, instead having fights decided by a convoluted system involving coins with hearts on them.

How it works is this: at the start of a fight, coins with hearts on them will rain from the 'bove, and all the character present will scramble to collect as many as they can in the few seconds before they disappear. During the fights, taking damage means dropping coins, until, when you have no coins left, you'll shrink down to a tiny size and a big glowing heart will come out of you and float around. If you can catch that heart before anyone else, you're back in the game, but if not, you're no longer able to win, but you can still move around in your shrunken form, like a small useless ghost (Iguess this is so players aren't left with nothing to doing after getting eliminated). The last player left at their full size is the winner, of course.

The actual act of playing is very similar to Smash Bros: you have buttons for jumping, normal and special attacks, throws and blocking. You do different attacks by pushing the analogue stick in the right direction while pressing one of the attack buttons. The most flagrant thing is that the shoulder buttons are used for blockng, and while blocking, you character crouches and gets surrounded by an impenetrable bubble. Shameless!

I'd feel unnecessarily harsh referring to this as a poor man's Smash Bros, as I enjoyed as much as the "real thing" (although to be fair, I do consider Smash Bros to be a bit of a poor man's Power Stone 2 to begin with), plus it has a bit of a more exciting roster than its consolemate Melee, especially if you don't particularly have a great interest in many of Nintendo's first party titles or their style of character design. I guess all I can say is that if you like Smash Bros, but you'd like to see Optimus Prime and Tyson from Beyblade fight Bomberman and a Moai head, then you should definitely play this game. If not, then probably not. What a boring copout!


Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Fire Trap (Arcade)

The wikipedia page for 1982's crazy climber says that that game might be the only arcade game that's not a twin-stick shooter two use two joysticks and no buttons. That's definitely wrong, though, as Fire Trap is another game with that control system. Although, to be fair to whoever wrote the Crazy Climber wiki page, Fire Trap is essentially an update of that game with really nice graphics.

And those graphics are really nice. You scale lovingly-rendered isometric highrises, rescuing people and putting out fires, and when you have a second or two spare, you can take in some gorgeous views of the surrounding cityscape. And while it was typical for city-set arcade games of the 1980s to take their visual cues from the likes of The Warriors or Terrifying Girls High School, Fire Trap emulates a more optimistic, luxurious view of the decade of decadence: rather than climbing graffiti-covered tenement estates, you're climbing luxurious condos in the sun. The second stage is a particularly proud example of eighties excess, being set on a building constructed of pink concrete, with occasional swimming pools and sun decks. On a sidenote of probably-unintentional satire, you could say that the most eighties element of the game is that you get more points for finding a sack of money than you do for rescuing a trapped human.

Anyway, I have some bad news: although the game is really really nice to look at, it's not so nice to play. It's not only incredibly hard, but frequently feels unfair, and even mean-spirited. It has that same "evil fire" that almost every other fire-fighting game seems to have (in fact, it might even be the first appearance of the phenomenon), and the flames will shooting homing orbs of fire at you as you're climbing around. Not only that, but once you near the top of the building, a huge hovering, invincible fireball will start floating around, faster than you can possibly avoid it, meaning you just have to hope that it doesn't crash into you as you climb the last few windows to the top. In case you're wondering about the controls, up and down on each stick move the respective hands of your character in the pushed direction, pushing left or right on either stick moes you sideways, and pushing the sticks in towards each other shoots upwards. Obviously, I was emulating, and while you might think the most logical setup for these controls would be the two analogue sticks of an XBox 360 controller, but I actually found this to be slightly less responsive and immediate as I'd like, so I figured out a scheme utilising the d-pad and ABXY buttons of a USB Saturn pad, as well as mapping the shot command to the right shoulder button. This allowed for much quicker movement, and just felt a lot nicer, especially when building up the right rhythm for speedy ascension. (Were the last few sentences a bit pointless and self-indulgent? Maybe.)

Anyway, yeah; Fire Trap is a beautiful game, but you'll save yourself a lot of stress by just going and looking up a longplay video of it on youtube.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Simple Wii Series Vol. 4 - The Shooting Action

I know I'm over a decade late on this, but until a few weeks ago, I'd never played on a Nintendo Wii, nor had I played any other game that used motion controls (unless you count lightgun games). But now you can get a Wii for almost no money, so I decided to open up a new avenue of potentially interesting games for myself. So, a Wii game named "The Shooting Action" sounds like it would be a lightgun game, right? Or maybe a low-budget first person shooter? Well, it's neither of those! What it actually is is a kind of fighting game, specifically a very simple (a-ha!) Senko no Ronde-alike.

There's only four ships to choose from, each with a normal weapon and a limited-use bomb. There's a laser that ignores on-screen obstacles, a mid-range gun with exploding shots, homing missiles that do a ton of damage, and a fast spread weapon that's devastating a point blank range, and the corresponding bomb attacks are pretty much just bigger versions of the normal weapons. The controls are in something of a Robotron style, with your movement being controlled by the analogue stick, and your weapons aimed by using the remote to move an onscreen cursor round your ship. Hold A to fire, and press B to use your bombs.

Like I said, I'm new to motion controls, and this is the first motion-controlled game that I've played for an extended amount of time. It mostly works okay, with the only real problem being that it takes a minute or two to regain your bearings each time you load up the game, and having one arm outstretched the whole time you're playing is pretty uncomfortable. But I guess everyone else already knows all that, right?

Anyway, the game has all the typical fighting game single player modes: An arcade-style mode where you fight opponents of gradually increasing difficulty, a survival mode where you have a single health bar to fight off as many opponents as possible, and a time attack mode, which gives you infinite lives and finite time to defeat as many opponents as possible. I haven't been able to play the game multiplayer, but it appears to support up to four players (though the single player modes are never more than one-on-one).

There's also customisable avatars! Because, you see, each ship is ring-shaped, and your avatar sits in the middle, like they're in a swimming pool using an inflatable ring. Unfortunately, there's not many parts to use in dressing up your avatars, but on the plus side, they do look a lot better than Miis, so thanks to the devs for that, at least. A word of warning, too: I don't know if this is something that happens for everyone, or if I have a bad copy or something, but in the avatar menu, if you try to highlight an item you've not yet unlocked, the game will crash. So don't do that.

The Shooting Action is a fun little game. It's nothing special, and it's not a patch on Senko no Ronde, but it is a nice enough cheap-and-cheerful substitute (though it's not like SnR fetches a particularly high price either these days, assuming you still have an X Box 360 with a working DVD drive).

Thursday, 12 January 2017

_____ (PC)

Okay, so obviously, this game's title isn't five underscores, it's the string of characters you see in the title screen above. But all the text in this game, including the numbers, is in an untranslated (possibly untranslatable) alien language. The name entry on the high score screen will let you know that there's twenty-eight letters, and I haven't gone out of my way to count them, but I think there might actually be more than ten numerical digits, too. The game's .exe is called "_____.exe", though, and I think some people online refer to it as "Platine Dispositif's Comiket 87 STG", too. (It does have the typical PD graphical style too, with cute female characters and soft-looking colourful bullets).

Anyway, other than that bizarre presentational choice (I wonder if it was done as a kind of accessibility thing? Like, instead of having multiple language options to make the game accessible to everyone, use an alien language to make it equally inaccessible to everyone?), it's a fairly traditional vertically-scrolling shooter, with the Star Soldier games being a clear design influence: there's a time-limited caravan mode, and the stages are full of passive collections of destructible blocks to get points. There's also stages, bosses and enemies that feel like they might be homages to other classic shooting games, like Xevious, Sylvalion, and so on.

There's a few interesting mechanics and systems in play in the game, though. The first one you'll notice is the weapons system: as you collect power ups, you get an increasing amount of options attached to your ship. You have a button on the controller for changing the formation of these options, with multiple possibilities available, depending on which direction you press on the d-pad when pressing the change button. There's also secret items hidden around the stages (revealed by shooting them, another clear Star Soldier influence) that give you more formations to choose from. The problem is, 90% of the game will only have you ever using "all the options pointed stright forward" and "all the options pointed straight back", making the rest of them a bit useless. Though I guess the alternative would have been to have the player constantly switching between different formations, making the game a fiddly annoying mess to play.

The other big mechanic is also the main way to score big points, and it's a lot more fun than I can probably make it sound. When power ups are on screen, and you fly near them, they'll get magnetised and home into your ship, and if you let go of the fire button, the distance from which this happens is greatly increased. This is a pretty common idea, really. The difference here is that your ship can move slightly faster than the power ups, and they often appear more than one at a time. Furthermore, every frame you have a power up following your ship, you get points, and obviously, the more power ups following, the more points you rack up. So with a bit of skill, you can have sizable clusters of power ups hovering around your ship, generating tons of points for you.

There is a tactical advantage to doing this too, however: when your weapon's at max power, collecting another power up gives you a few seconds of even more powerful shots. So, if you're maxed out, and there's a boss coming up, you "save" any power ups floating around so you can unleash your full might on the boss, instead of wasting it on the empty few seconds before it appears. I've said "power ups" far too many times in this review so far, but there's still a few more mentions to go, as there's also a upgrade shop in the main menu, that uses the power ups you've collected during play as currency. You'll be glad to know, though, that you can't make entries into the high score table if you're using upgrades, they can be turned off once bought, and they never affect the caravan mode.

In summary, this is a really great game, with an incredibly unique presentation, and it's highly recommended. Don't worry about navigating menus in an alien language, either, as there's nice friendly pictograms showing what things do too. Also, this is the first physical release of a doujin PC game I've ever bought, and it came in a really nice custom package made of think, sturdy card, with the art on the disc fitting perfectly with the art on the surrounding parts of the packaging. In an age where billion-dollar publishers only do the bare minimum in presenting their £60 physical releases, seeing a tiny company making such a high-quality item for their 1500JPY game is really nice.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Annet Futatabi (Mega CD)

For some reason, Wolf Team were very prolific on the Mega CD, whether they were porting other companies games, like Road Avenger and Thunderstorm FX, or making their own stuff, like this game. Annet Futatabi is the third part of a trilogy that also includes the Mega Drive games Earnest Evans and El Viento. Unlike those games, though, it's not a platformer, but a belt-scrolling beat em up, one of very few Mega CD beat em ups that aren't arcade ports.

As a Japanese Mega CD title, it's pretty much par for the course: it's an action game of the sort that the base Mega Drive could have played host to, but with the addition of CD audio, full screen animated cutscenes (in the "animated pixel art" non-FMV style I've spoken of in  a few other reviews, most notably the Saturn game Dinosaur Island) and voice acting. And all of those things are great! The cutscenes are very reminiscent of 80s/early 90s period-adventure anime, like The Secret of Blue Water, and so on. There's even a nice anime-style intro, complete with vocal theme song!

Of course, great presentation is something of a common theme throughout Wolf Team's games, especially when they're working on CD-based systems. Unfortunately, another running theme is "almost greatness", and Annet Futatabi is no exception. It has all the ingredients for being an unsung classic of the system (and, to be honest, most of the system's classics can be considered unsung, thanks to the received opinion that "the Mega CD was worthless"): it's a fairly nice-looking beat em up, with a cool setting, a female lead and great presentation, plus it's a system exclusive. You can probably guess from the tone of this paragraph so far that it doesn't quite work out like that, though.

And you'd be right to guess that! Though there are some nice little things about how the game plays: the fact that you can run in eight directions, and that you do have a moderately sizable moelist, it all falls apart due to how unfair the difficulty is. Firstly, when enemies attack, their hitbox seems to be bigger than their entire sprite, not just the part of them that's attacking, and it seems to still be in effect for a few frames after the attack animation's finished. So for anyone used to more competently-constructed beat em ups, who might instinctively go in for a throw or combo as soon as an enemy's attack finishes will have to counterintuitively learn to wait a little, slowing the game down and ruining the flow. There's also the fact that you have a big bomb attack that recharges over time, so it can be used multiple times over the course of a single stage. The problem is that when the stage's boss appears, your bomb attack disappears and you can't use it. This just makes no sense at all! I can't imagine what they were thinking when they made that decision, especially due to the fact that bosses suffer (or rather, they benefit?) from the "giant attack hitbox problem just as much as the regular enemies, and they're a lot bigger than normal enemies already.

I really wanted to like this game, and I tried to get some kind of joy from it, but it's just an awkward, frustrating slog. When I got to the third stage, an underground ancient temple full of robots with ranged attacks and the ability to turn invincible without warning, I gave up on it. It's a shame.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Karian Cross (Arcade)

Karian Cross is yet another Korean arcade game, but I think it's by far the most professionally-made and high quality Korean arcade game I've yet featured on this blog. It's a typical versus-style colour matching puzzle game, with chains and junk blocks and all the usual hallmarks that come with the genre. Obviously, though, it does have one unique mechanical element to call its own, and it does display a pretty high standard of presentation, too.

The basic tactics are pretty much a total rip of Puyo Puyo: get three or more blocks of the same colour touching, and they'll disappear, then those above will fall, and if those match too, they'll disappear and so on. Racking up big chains in this manner means dumping lots of junk blocks on your opponent. The first to fill their well up to the top with blocks loses. The unique factor comes in the form of the junk blocks themselves: they're normal coloured blocks, trapped in transparent cubes, and when normal blocks disappear next to them, they're freed from the cubes. Of course, if they match, they disappear.

So a smart player can (and will have to) include the junk blocks in any planning they do while preparing chains. Complicating matters somewhat is the fact that, like a lot of similar games that have multiple playable characters, each character dumps junk blocks on their opponents in different patterns. An interesting twist Karian Cross puts on this is that some characters will have junk blocks coming in from the sides or bottom of the well, as well as falling from the top.

As for the presentation, it's generally of a high quality, with well-drawn characters and backgrounds, and a nice general theme of medieval european fantasy holding everything together. There's one really great little touch in particular, in that each character has differently-shaped blocks: some characters have swords or axes, others have gems or different kinds of fruit, and so on. It gives the impression that unlike a lot of Korean videogames, especially arcade titles, it was made with some real care and passion put into it, and not just as a cheap cash in.

It's always hard when it comes to recommending puzzle games of this type. Most of them are good, sometimes even great, but the problem is, they're all also really similar, and the truth is that the Puyo Puyo and Magical Drop series and Money Puzzle Exchanger are so good, any games that want to offer competition have to offer something really special. Unfortunately, Karian Cross is yet another example of a good puzzle game that just can't compete with the titans at the top of the genre.