Thursday, 17 May 2018

Cosmic Epsilon (NES)

When it was released in 1985, Space Harrier was one of, possibly the most graphically impressive videogame that had ever been released up until that point. It would obviously, then, be absurd to try and match it on an 8-bit home console originally released in 1983, even with a few more years of advancement in programming know how. And Cosmic Epsilon is no exception to that: it looks nowhere near as good as arcade Space Harrier. It is still one of the most graphically impressive Famicom games I've ever seen, though, and it does have one cool little trick that Space Harrier doesn't. But I'll get back to that later.

As you've probably worked out, 1989's Cosmic Epsilon is an into-the-screen sprite scaling-style shooting game (though since it's on the Famicom, it has to fake the sprite scaling, though that's no point of shame: remember that Space Harrier II on the Mega Drive had to do the same). You fly forwards, shooting enemies and avoiding their shots, of course. There's a couple of extra gameplay gimmicks in there too, compared to Space Harrier, like the ability to charge up your weapon, making your shots more powerful for a few seconds, as well as a limited use missile weapon that's presumably more powerful, but never seems to hit anything, so we'll never know for sure.

I've read a few other reviews of this game dotted around the internet, and one thing always seems to come up: the difficulty level. Well, two things, but they're related, as the other is the player's massive hitbox, which is a major contributing factor to the game's high difficulty. At first, I was a little sceptical, since I easily managed to get past the first stage on my first attempt. It was only after several failed attempts to get past the second that I realised the veracity of all the complaints of those who came before me. I even looked up the level select cheat so I could take a few more varied screenshots for this review! (As an interesting bit of trivia, the level select cheat is performed by inputting the famous Konami code backwards on the titles screen. Inputting it the right way round just flashes up the message "I AM NOT KONANI", which is slightly amusing).

Other than the difficulty, though, this game is a joy to play: it's smooth, it's fast, everything works how it should, and it generally just feels good. Getting back to the graphics, it also looks amazing! A lot better in motion than in still screenshots,though. And the graphical gimmick I mentioned back in the first paragraph? It's the ground: unlike Space Harrier's abstract grids, the floor in Cosmic Epsilon shows actual places! There's roads, shorelines, cracked earth and lava flows, even a high-altitude stage where you're flying above a lightly cloudy sky. All of this is conveyed to you in the form of patterns of big, differently coloured squares, but nonetheless, it's an effect that works, and really gives the game a sense of place.

So I definitely recommend Cosmic Epsilon. It's one of the most impressive games on its host system, and it's actually fun to play in its own right too. 

Friday, 11 May 2018

GHost94 (PC)

I have to start this review with an admission: I have no idea what the goal of this game is, plus I'm really bad at it, so I didn't get very far in the few hours of it that I played. However, I think it's an interesting enough game to write about and at least tell you what I figured out about it. It's part of a long-running series o;f Japanese indie PC games, that you've probably seen a few of if you pay attention to the trailer compilations that come out before each Comiket.

It's a 3D stealth game that takes place in a massive (well, it feels massive, anyway) post-apocalyptic/dystopian Japanese city, patrolled by ninja-like soldiers and heavily-armed robots. Being stealthy is incredibly important, as if you're spotted, all the enemies in the area will chase you around trying to kill you and you're far from durable. You can find somewhere to hide until the heat dies down, but the best thing to do is to find an exit and leae the area as fast as possible. I can't tell you about any of the plot or anything, so I basically just went exploring as best I could. Occasionally I'd trigger a story event, and one time I found a save/healing room (which was very important, as if you haven't saved and you die, you have to start the game again, with a very long unskippable cutscene you have to sit through every time). There's areas that I think are radioactive, where a geiger counter-esque clicking sound starts, and an increasing counter appears above your head. Different areas have the counter going up at different speeds, and if it reaches 999, you die instantly. Seems like videogame radioactivity to me!

There's a lot that's failry unique about the game, with the most obvious being its look. It looks incredible, with a late-90s inspired combination of 2d sprites walking around low-poly 3D worlds with low resolution pixel art textures. But it's used in a way that wouldn't have been possible on the Playstation or Saturn, creating some gigantic areas, and creating a real sense of scale, as rotting skyscrapers tower above your tiny SD sprite in the outdoors areas, while the indoor areas range from labyrinhtine mazes of corridors and small rooms to huge high-ceilinged hallways and swimming pools. The other big idiosyncracy is the controls: rather than going with the now-standard twin stick controls for 3d action games, GHost94 has its own controls that take a little bit of getting used to. Essentially, your actual movement is restriced to moving left and right on a 2D plane, and jumping. You can still move all over the place though, as you use the shoulder buttons (assumeing you've set up your controls in the layout recommended by the config screen's diagram) to move the camera, and with it the plane on which you move, by ninety degrees. Like I said, it does take some gettig used to, and you are in danger of fumbling under pressure when you've been spotted, but on the other hand, it is nice to play a modern 3D action game that doesn't just use the exact same control scheme as every other game. Plus, there's a first-person view button that's useful not just for spotting eemies you might not have otherwise, but also for just taking in the spectacle of your surroundings.

Now, as I mentioned, I haven't managed to get very far in this game yet, so there's some things I can only half-understand. You can pick up various small objects from the ground, but most of them seem to be useless bits of garbage. There's also money, dropped by enemies, should you be brave enough to try and fight them, and lucky/skilled enough to kill one. I never found a use for the garbage items (that do literally just seem to be bits of litter), nor did I ever reach a shop where money could be spent. Though I assume that weapons are sold there, as you start with a weak knife that can be equipped and unequipped.

I think that's all I can really say about GHost94, to be honest. I find it fascinating and aesthetically beautiful enough to try and stumble my way through. If you've got the patience (or the Japanese literacy) for it, you should give it a try, too. If you do, I'd be glad to hear your findings!

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Turbo Girl (MSX)

There might be something I've forgotten in the misty past of this blog, but I think this might be the first western-developed MSX game I've covered here. As well as being popular in Japan, the system also had/has a strong following in mainland Europe, especially the Netherlands. This game, however, is Spanish, and it's a port of a ZX Spectrum game, which you can probably tell just from looking at the screenshots, since it's pretty much a direct port, colour clash and all. (As an aside, I think this might also be the first Spanish game I've featured?)

The game's a shooting game with some platforming. Top down platforming. With multiple consecutive jumps that require pixel-perfect timing and precision. I'm going to spoil the rest of the review for you now: it's pretty much completely negative. This game is just no fun to play at all, nor does it have any other redeeming features, except maybe having a female protaagonist (though you can only really see her on the very eighties title screen).

It's ugly, it's slow, it's boring, and there's no music anywhere except the title screen. The stage design is horrible, too: as well as the pixel perfect death-jumps, there's also enemies that pop up from the bottom of the screen without warning, some really unpleasant checkpoint placing and a general cramped feeling to everything. On top of all this, despite the word "turbo" being right there in the title, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the derelict space stations on which the game is set were submerged in oceans of treacle, as everything moves incredibly slowly, even the bullets.

Another problem the game has is the controls: you can select joystick controls at the start, but the game only recognises one joystick button (presumably a vestigial problem from its Spectrum source), with jump assigned to the space bar. Remember those nigh-impossible jumps I described earlier? I was playing on an emulator, using joy2key to map the space bar to one of the buttons on my USB Saturn controller. If you were playing on real hardware, you wouldn't be able to sdo that, and the game would be rendered pretty much impossible. Especially since the second stage, as far as I can tell, does away with the shooting part of the game completely and becomes entirely about jumping across massive gaps in the floor.

Don't play Turbo Girl, it's an irredeemible, joyless piece of garbage.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Aaargh! (Amiga)

Oddly, I'd played this game long before I'd ever even heard of Rampage. It was among the boxes of pirated games that came with the second hand Amiga 500 I got one year as a kid, and for a couple of years, it was the only reference I had for games about being a big monster that wrecks stuff. Interestingly, it's also one of a few Amiga games that was also released on the Amiga-based Arcadia arcade hardware, making it an oddity in two ways: a European-developed arcade game, and one that was ported from a computer to the arcades (or possibly the other way round? Though since they're pretty much the same machine I don't think it really matters).

Is it good though? We'll get to that in a while. First, it might be more useful to compare it to its more famous American forebear. In terms of originality, at least, Aaargh! fares pretty well. It's got a slightly beat em up-like perspective so you can walk up and down as well as left and right, meaning the cities can have more interesting layouts than just a bunch of buildings all in a row. There's also a secondary goal alongside smashing everything, which is to find the roc's egg hidden in each stage, which takes you to a bossfight/bonus stage against the one of the two selectable monsters you didn't choose.

So anyway, the game sees you as one of two giant monsters (a giant lizard or a cyclops) destroying various human-built locations throughout history. The locations are pretty varied, and other than the first stage always being the jungle village, they seem to appear in random order, too, so even if you can't get far, you'll at least be able to see a lot of them with some perseverance. There's sterotypical east asian temples, desert cities carved into the sides of cliff faces, colonial American towns, and so on, and they all look pretty nice (though naturally, some are more colourful and detailed than others). No matter what location in time or space you end up, though, you always seem to be under attack from a human-directed trebuchet and giant prehistoric mosquitos.

To finish a stage, you either destroy every building, or you find and pick up the roc's egg. The first method will just take you to another stage full of stuff to smash, while the second will take you to the aforementioned bonus bossfight. The bonus bossfights aren't very good. There's no health bar or other indication of who's winning, and you and your opponent just flail at each other for a few seconds until inevitably, you fall over and your opponent wins. It doesn't really matter though, since losing these fights doesn't result in a game over anyway. The game's other big problem is the controls: since it's an Amiga game, that means the designers had to shoehorn multiple actions onto one fire button (I mean, the Amiga could totally use two button controllers, but for some reason most developers for it never bothered with a second button). So, if you tap the button, you breath fire. If you hold it and press left and right, you punch, up and you do an uppercut (for killing mosquitons) and down is for picking up items or humans off the ground.

These controls would be fine, were it not for two problems: firstly, you have four-way movement in this game, but because of how the controls work, you can't punch buildings while you're facing up or down, meaning you can only destroy them with fire. Fire that's limited, but you don't have any kind of onscreen meter or anything telling you how much you have left. (As an aside, one pretty cool thing you can do with your fire breath is set buildings ablaze, and they'll gradually fall apart and collapse while you go and do other stuff). The other problem is that sometimes, the controls just don't respond. I'm sure there's some kind of special knack to getting your monster to punch or whatever whenever you want them to, but as it is, sometimes you'll be holding the button and pressing the directions and your monster will just walk around, or breath fire instead of doing what you ask. It's this problem especially that's the game-killer.

So, Aaargh! is a game with some good ideas, and some bad ideas (why not have both monsters in the field looking for the egg simultaneously? That would make a lot more sense.), and some very bad execution. And it's the execution that prevents me from being able to recommend playing it, unresponsive controls of this degree are just unforgivable.