Sunday, 23 September 2018

Lupin III: Pyramid no Kenja (Saturn)

It's suprising how few Lupin III games there have been over the years, considering not only the character's international popularity, but also how his 1979 movie The Castle of Cagliostro was a clear influence on the designs of various games, most obviously the Castlevania series. And of the games that there are, a bunch of them are adventure games or console ports of pachi-slot machines, not the crazy madcap action games you'd expect from Lupin III.

This Saturn entry is one of the action games, though, and for some reason, it seems to be less well known than the Lupin III database disc thing that's also on Saturn. The plot, as far as I can discern (since it's told in a series of great-looking, but obviously untranslated FMVs), concerns Lupin, Goemon, and Jigen looking to relieve a pyramid of all its treasures. Of course, this being a videogame based on an anime character, the pyramid is not only full of normal traps, but also masked cultist guards, futuristic super-technology, and the pyramid itself is only the tip of a giant diamond-shaped structure that's mostly underground.

Most of the stages focus around getting a treasure, then getting to the exit. Along the way you'll also fight enemies, avoid traps and sometimes solve a simple puzzle or two. It's okay, but it's let down by a few things. The camera is the worst, it's terrible. It never changes angle on its own, instead relying on you to do it with the shoulder buttons, and even then, it seems almost impossible to get it into a good position for jumping over pits and things like that. I feel like a lot of the time when people complain about the camera in old 3D games, they're just nitpicking, but this is a case where it's legitimately terrible.

The other main problem is one I almost feel bad for picking at, because it really shows that the developers tried to capture the spirit of Lupin III. Lupin's got a big, gangly-limned run animation that looks great, but unfortunately, it also means that he's constantly moving really fast, making navigating certain hazards more difficult than it needs to be, especially when stuff like moving platforms and the like are brought into the equation.

On the whole, Pyramid no Kenja isn't a great game. It does, however, look really great, and it's yet another nail in the coffin of the "Saturn can't do 3D" myth. I don't really recommend playing it though, unless you've got saintlike reserves of patience at your disposal.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Outlander (Mega Drive)

This is a game I first encountered years ago, in my earliest days of emulation, but back then, I never figured out how to actually play it. Or at least, I never figured out how to play it for a decent amount of time. But before I get onto that, I should describe what the game actually is: it's a would-be sequel to a Mad Max game on the NES (that I haven't played), though the publisher apparently no longer had the license, so they just changed the name.

You play as some guy driving through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, constantly assailed by bikers, and later on, people in cars and helicopter pilots. You can fight them off with machineguns mounted to the front of your car, and when an enemy's coming close up next to you, a little side window appears and, if your timing's good enough, you can blast them with your shotgun. Eventually, the little left-pointing arrow on your dashboard will start blinking, telling you that you're near a town and you should pull over (which is done by stopping your car to the left side of the road, then turning the steering wheel left as far as it'll go).

That's the part I never figured out back then, and it's pretty important! The town segments take the form of single-plane beat em up stages, where you walk to the left, taking out any enemies you encounter (all the people you encounter are enemies, by the way), as well as destroying any barrels or crates you find, in the hopes of obtaining more fuel, food or water (to replenish you health), or ammo for your guns. If you don't visit the towns, you won't get any points, as they're totted up based on how many enemies you killed, your remaining fuel and health, and so on as you enter. But more importantly, you'll quickly run out of fuel! (Actually points are pretty important too, since you don't start with any extra lives and you can only get them through points).

If you run out of fuel, you'll come to a stop, and you'll have to do a beat em up stage on the road, which are much harder than the town ones, since there's now bikers trying to take your head off with chains, and you can only kill them with your shotgun, which has limited ammo. In the old days, I'd just keep driving until I reached one of these stages, then quickly get killed. I'm glad I gave it another shot as an adult, and finally figured it out, because Outlander is a pretty fun game!

It's no classic, and it has some big problems, like how the scenery during the driving sections never changes (I know you're driving through an endless wasteland, but with a bit of imagination you can easily come up with a few variants: toxic swamp, ruined city, dead forest, etc.), and how later on there's some unfair stuff like poisoned water that reduces your health, but it's definitely a game worth playing, and it's a shame it's not better known. I strongly recommend you also give it a try!

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Advanced Spanner-X -Endless Fire- (X68000)

The title might be bizarre, but unfortunately, the setting of this game is fairly standard, old-fashioned space shooter stuff. You're a spaceship, you shoot other spaceships. Luckily, however, it is a bit more interesting from a mechanical standpoint, and though it's a Japanese game on a system that was only ever released in Japan, it does make me wonder if the developers were fans of European-developed shooting games, like Xenon 2 et al.

There's a couple of reasons I say this. The first is that the game does suffer from that most stereotypical EuroSTG bugbear, lots and lots of bulletsponge enemies. The second, and most interesting, is that rather than your ship having one weapon that gradually powers up, or the ability to change weapons by collecting different items, you instead select your weapon before each stage. A lot of European shooting games have weapon shops for changing and upgrading one's weapon, though Spanner-X's system is a little different from that, too: you're given a selection of weapons from which to choose at the start of each stage, and the twist is that each can only be chosen once.

I guess the point of this is that there's a weapon that best matches each stage, and the player discovers the best order to use them through trial and error. I'm putting a lot of faith in the design skills of the developers with this theory, but I think it works out. There's definitely weapons that seem perfect for the first few stages, at least. It's not a system I like, but at least they're trying something different, I guess? And really, the biggest problem with this game is that first point: the enemies can all take a fair few shots, and they're mostly really small sprites too, so you constantly feel underpowered, which isn't a lot of fun, to be honest.

There is another, more interesting mechanical idiosyncracy in there too, though! Rather than giving you a health bar or a set number of lives, you're given a number of energy units, which not only act as hitpoints, but also temporary power-ups. You lose a unit of energy if you get hit, and you can also press the second button on your controller to expend a unit to power up your weapon for five seconds. Either way, when there's no energy left, it's game over. It's an interesting and unusual system, but even your powered up weapons still feel weak, so making the sacrifice never really feels worthwhile.

There's some other little notes to say about this game, like how the music is excellent (though this being both a shooting game and on the X68000, you could probably have predicted that), and the weird practice of how by default, the score's only displayed between stages, and you have to go into the options screen to turn on score display during play. Though it's an interesting and fairly original game, I can't really recommend Advanced Spanner X Endless Fire, as playing it just isn't fun or exciting. A disappointment.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Simple 2000 Series Vol. 73 = The Saiyuutou Saruden (PS2)

This game has a lot in common with the early Oneechanbara games: it's by Tamsoft, it's a low budget musou game, and it has a lot of wandering around big, multi-map stages like a lost idiot. But! There isn't just the "Journey to the West" theme to differentiate it, as it does actually bring a few ideas to the table, even if they're more interesting in theory than they are fun to engage with in practice.

The premise is one that just seems so obvious for a 3D game based on Journey to the West: you play as Monkey (and later Pigsy and Sandy too), and your job is to escort Tripitaka (note: I'm using the names from the UK dub of the 1970s Japanese live action Saiyuki TV show, just for convenience) across big stages filled with various kinds of demons. There's a few complications that took me a while to figure out at first, though.

Firstly, you've got to find the place to which you're escorting Tripitaka. You go out, find the thing, then go back and tell her, and she'll start moving. There's a huge statue you've got to find and take her to to pray to, and a smaller statue, the finding of which will encourage Tripitaka to take you to the sealed gate to the stage's boss, that you have to fight. The first two bosses are Pigsy and Sandy, and Sandy is the point at which I gave up on the game, after spending over 30 minutes repeatedly being killed by him. Sorry, but he takes off a third of your health right at the start with an unavoidable combo, and then interrupts all your attempts to fight him with the same. It's no fun, and it totally killed my interest in the game.

But other than that, the whole reconnaisance/escort aspect of the game does a lot to differentiate it from other musou games, though I feel it might have been better if they'd have waited a few years and put it on more powerful hardware. The problem is that the stages have to be pretty big by the nature of the game, which means they have to be split up into a few smaller maps, with loading times between each of them. Since you're definitely going to be back and forth, that means you're subjected to numerous loading screens no matter what. There's also the problem that when you leave an area and come back, all the enemies will have respawned, though you can lighten that burden by just running past them all the first time through.

Obviously, though I spent a few hours playing The Saiyuutou Saruden and it does have some potential, I can't really recommend it. It's a shame its ideas never got re-explored on hardware more capable of fulfilling them. Also, it's totally ruined by the unfair, unfun bosses (even though I did beat the first one, it was still an awful experience, and mainly down to luck).

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Ankoku Shinwa: Yamato Takeru Densetsu (NES)


Also known as Dark Myth, this is an adventure game based on the 1976 comic, all focussed around Japanese and Buddhist mythology, with a particular focus on the creation myths of Japan. The comic only lasted a single volume, so I assume it wasn't massively popular when it came out, with both this game and an OAV being released in 1989 and 1990 respectively, over a decade later. I can't say for certain, but I'm going to lay the credit for both adaptations at the feet of the Teito Monogatari franchise of novels, comics, movies and anime, that really re-popularised Japanese mythology and mysticism in the 1980s.

The game itself has typical 80s menu-based Famicom adventure game sections where you look at, walk, talk to, get, and use things, places and people, each one puntucated by a boss fight done in the style of a 2D platform game (but with no platforms). The adventure sections are actually pretty easy, there never seems to be more than three options for each action you can take, and even working through trial and error, you shouldn't face too many problems, except for one. Paradoxically, the game, at times, assumes you're an idiot, which makes the puzzles harder.

For example, there's a point where you encounter two statues, one with an empty eye socket, another with a removable eye-shaped gem. Obviusly, the solution is to take the eye-shaped gem from one statue and put it into the other. The thing that got me stuck, though, is that the option to put the gem into the eyehole doesn't appear until you check your late dad's journal, which will helpfully tell you "put the gem in the eyehole!" Figuring out that I had to look in the journal led to me having to look up a guide, and it makes no sense to me that the game forces you to do that as part of the puzzle, rather than using it as an optional hint.

The action sequences are very brief and very easy, and would barely be worth mentioning if they weren't unusual by their simple presence in the game. They're not terrible or a chore, but neither do they add a lot to the game. The game's difficulty is a mystery in general, though: the story's subject matter is pretty dark, with lots of deaths and a fair bit of violence, and the way the story's told in the comic and the OAV is also very dense, to the extent that it almost seems like it was made with the intent of being an edutainment piece on Japanese myth and ancient history. Contradictory to the tone and style of the source material is the game's difficulty. It all feels like it was made for a much younger audience than the other versions, and maybe it was?

Though the subject matter is interesting, and surprisingly rare in videogames, I still feel like everything about this game just makes it a weak substitute for either of the other versions of the story, and you'd probably be better off reading or watching one of those.