Thursday, 16 November 2017

Shadows of the Tusk (Saturn)

It seems slightly strange to me there there are two obscure Saturn games that use pre-rendered sprites and have character designs by Susumu Matsushita. (The other one, you might remember me covering a while ago, is Willy Wombat.) Anyway, Shadows of the Tusk is a turn-based strategy game, that, to add onto the unusuality of the whole affair, had online play via the X-BAND modem, though there's still plenty of single-player fun to be had, so that's fine.

The online element does seem to have had an influence on the design in general, as a lot of things seem streamlined to cater to the low bandwidth that would have been available to a dialup modem attached to a four-year-old console in 1998. For a start, there's no levelling up for any of the characters, though there is some kind of power progression in a different way. In single player mode, you have a "deck" of characters to build, and you get more characters by winning battles. Your deck screen has you putting characters on two rows: the smaller row has the characters that are summoned automatically at the start of battle, the character who starts on the middle space of that row will be designated the leader, meaning that the battle ends if they're defeated, and they also have the ability to summon characters that you've placed in the other row of the deck. Summoning costs mana, and your force has a shared mana pool that's also used for casting spells, and regenerates by ensuring that characters start their turns on certain spaces on the map.

Another concession is that though there are different backgrounds available, every battle takes place on a tiny five-by-five grid. This, in combination with the "kill the leader" tactical element ensures that the game has an almost chess-like emphasis on where you move your characters, and there'll even be plenty of times when you'll sacrifice characters to either make way for stronger characters stood behind them, or just to postpone your enemy's soldiers reaching your leader. Another thing to take into account while talking about character placement is that any spell or attack you can cast that affects an area will not discern between friend and foe, meaning that you might end up sometimes have to decide if you want to heal your enemies or immolate your allies.

Obviously, I haven't played the multiplayer mode around which the game is clearly centred, but there's enough meat to the singleplayer game that it's still worth your time. Best of all is that though all the plot-related stuff is in Japanese, all the menus, including those during the battles, are entirely in English! So, this is a pretty fun game that mostly looks great (the small sprites on the grid look really nice, while the bigger sprites used for the attack animations look like the most awful mid-90s CG), and is totally accessible to the JP-illiterate. I definitely recommend it!

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Road Spirits (PC Engine)

Road Spirits isn't a particuarly good or original game, but it does serve as a useful example to point out and debunk two annoying habits of the kinds of people who write videogames reviews as if they're writing consumer reports on household appliances rather than subjective critiques of creative works.

First up is the idea that the length of time between starting a game and seeing its ending is the sole, or most important arbiter of a game's quality and value for money. It the idea that leads to people complaining that ports of even recent arcade games are "unworthy" of being sold at anything other than the lowest bargain prices, because they don't babysit the player through fourty hours of box-ticking and map-tidying. To use Road Spirits as an example, we can compare it to SEGA's Outrun. A full run of Outrun, from beginning to end will take between five and eight minutes, while Road Spirits has seventeen tracks which are tackled in a set order, each taking between three and four minutes to drive through.

Outrun is also better than Road Spirits in practically every way. Where Outrun's stages are full of obstacles and other objects, Road Spirits' stages are sparsely decorated with a few signs or trees here and there, making them feel empty and lifeless. Also, Outrun is a challenging game, in which you try desperately to reach checkpoints before running out of time, and trying to pass other vehicles without hitting them to score the most points, while Road Spirits has absurdly generous time limits you'd have deliberately try to fail, and the very few other cars you see on the road don't really serve any purpose at all. The one point Road Spirits has over Outrun is that it takes advantage of its format, having a full CD quality soundtrack with ten songs. So, it's a clear case of quality over quantity right? Anyone would choose Outrun over Road Spirits, even though Road Spirits is a much longer game from start to finish.

The other annoying habit is the idea that games can never be more than the sum of their parts, something that's not such a big problem any more, though there are still writers putting out reviews with lots of different numbers exactly stating how good they think each seperate aspect of a game is. You can see from the first part of the review that this isn't a great game, and is not only pretty mediocre in almost every respect, but also significantly inferior to a very similar game released a few years earlier in the same genre. But the thing is, it's not a worthless game, there is a reason to play, and a situation in which it's actually a pretty great experience!

This mostly hinges upon the aforementioned CD soundtrack, but if you play this game late on a sweltering hot summer's night, with the lights of and the windows open, you play a few stages, making sure to choose the more sophisticated tunes from the soundtrack, it's a great mood-setting game. It just provides a cool, relaxing atmosphere in a way that makes the whole thing worthwhile, and which can't really be described in a collection of arbitrary numbers.

So yeah, it's not a killer app or anything, but considering that you can get a copy for a handful of pennies if you shop around a bit, it's a worthwhile addition to your PC Engine CD library.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Eojjeonji Joheun Il-i Saenggil Geot Gateun Jeonyeok (PC)

So, that long title apparently translates to "A Night Where Good Things Are Bound To Happen", which is also the name of the comic on which it's based, which was the first professional work (as far as I can tell) of Lee myung-Jin, who later went on to create the fantasy comic Ragnarok, which he'd then abandon after that comic's spin-off MMORPG turned out to be wildly more profitable. Boo. This comic apparently got an english translation under the name "Lights Out", which is interesting, I guess.

The comic's apparently about juvenile delinquents and gangsters, and the game is a belt-scrolling beat em up! It's also a bit of an anachronism: despite coming out in 1997, it's a DOS game, rather than Windows 95 or something. At the opposite end of the scale, it also suffers from that beat em up disease I'm sure you're all sick of me complaining about: experience points! You get points for beating up enemies, and at the end of each stage segment, you get a chance to spend those points on things like increasing your max HP, improving your moveset, and so on. You really need to choose wisely, since you'll probably only be able to afford something every couple of visits, and your health doesn't recover between stages unless you pay for it (there's an option to increase and refill your health bar and a cheaper one to just refill it). Also because this game is merciless in its difficulty.

Well, it appears to be on your first play, as your health bar goes down in huge chunks, and after only a few hits from enemies it'll be gone. Obviously, you'll want to upgrade it pretty soon, but there's something else at work that you won't notice at first, that I'll refer to as the "stubbornness" system for the sake of convenience. How stubbornness works is that once your health bar is completely depleted, you start flashing red. While you're in this state, you can keep taking damage indefinitely, as long as you never get knocked off your feet. So it's a cool little last chance type of dealy. It'd be a lot cooler if there were health items every now and then or free healing at the end of the stage, as it'd motivate you to try your very hardest to struggle to the next item, but it's still nice. Some enemies also have the stubbornness trait too, but it's not just a way to make the game even harder, as you get a small amount of experience for every hit you land on a flashing enemy, so, depending on your skill, courage and tolerance to boredom, you can milk these guys for experience indefinitely.

It would be remiss to let this review end without mentioning how great this game looks. The character sprites aren't anything special, but they're nice enough, and more than made up for by the backgrounds, which all look excellent. The game's got a gritty urban setting, and that coupled with the high-quality pixel art almost lets you envision a world where there was a Saturn entry into the Streets of Rage series. A nice little touch is that there's billboard ads for the Ragnarok comic series in some of the backgrounds, too. Anyway, I'm not going to say that this game is an absolute essential that you need to track down, but if you do, and you give it a chance, you won't regret it.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Seigi no Mikata (PS2)

Most tokusatsu-themed games, whether they're based on actual shows, or just inspired by the genre's aesthetic and concepts, are fighting games or beat em ups. That's what I was expecting from Seigi no Mikata, but it turned out to be something completely different: an adventure game that attempts to simulate the entire role of a main character in a tokusatsu show, not just the parts where they're transformed and fighting enemies. In fact, the game emulates the structure of a tokusatsu TV show in general: there are episodes rather than stages, and each episode had opening and closing sequences and an ad break in the middle! Furthermore, your goal isn't necessarily to win every instance of combat, but to achieve a minimum percentage of the TV ratings each week.

Before you get to doing any of that, though, you do get to choose the look of your hero's transformed state. It's not a super in-depth character creator, since you can just mix and match parts for arms, legs, torso and head, but it interesting in another way. All the parts you can pick are blatant homages to classic tokusatsu and anime shows like Gatchaman, Kikaider, and even going all the way back to the likes of Gekkou Kamen, the first Japanese TV superhero from all the way back in 1958.

So, if it's not all combat, what does this game actually entail? Mostly, wandering around a small Japanese town (as a side note, if you like low-poly renditions of small Japanese towns, and I know some of you do, this is a pretty good one), talking to people and sometimes helping them with small problems, like herding their cats, finding their dropped contact lenses, and so on. Talking to people and solving their problems gives very tiny ratings boosts, while standing still doing nothing causes them to plummet. Every few minutes, though, there'll be an event, which means you have to go to the right location before it starts. (Amazingly, for the entire first episode, I managed to do this every time, entirely by chance. After that though, I went and found a guide, just in case). An event might be just a conversation with the other characters on the show, a battle with some mooks or a villain, or sometimes both. During the conversations, there are usually multiple choices, that can affect the ratings, though they'll slowly rise all the time an event is happening no matter what you do.

As for the combat, it's a disappointment. It starts with a little button-mashing minigame to do decide who goes first, then whoever does go first gets to pick their ten attacks (they can be punches, kicks or throws). After that, the other side tries to guess which ten attacks the attacker chose so they can defend. The whole thing then plays out, and if both sides are still standing, it starts again, but with the roles of attacker and defender reversed, until one side falls. It's not exciting at all, but since this isn't an action game generally, I guess they didn't want any difficulty walls for the adventure game fans that were probably going to buy it. But even Shenmue's branching path-style QTBs were better than this.

Seigi no Mikata is a game that I really wanted to like, as it's clear a lot of love went into its creation, and it is of a very high quality and full of ideas. The problem is that it's just so boring to play! A lot of your time is spent wandering around waiting for the next event to happen, and the events themselves aren't particularly exciting, either. You might level the same criticisms at Shenmue, but I'd say the difference is that in Shenmue, you have to actually investigate to make the events happen, plus its depictions of 1980s Japan and Hong Kong are so richly textured and full of life that it can get by pretty well on its atmosphere alone. In summary, play Shenmue instead of this, sorry.