Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Other Stuff Monthly #14!

So, a while ago, I discovered the Japanese youtuber Crafty Transformer, who makes cool mechanical weapons and machinery (mostly recreated from videogames and anime) out of cardboard. Coupled with my ever-increasing love of tokusatsu, it's made me think "I want to make cool things too". At some point, I also became aware of the subject of today's post, a Japanese children's book entitled Saikyo Kosaku Craft Wars.

The book contains instructions on how to make various toys out of household objects, a long-standing tradition of kids' media the world over, of course. The gimmick here though is that all the items are tied into various stories that are told alongside the instructions. Of course, I can't read the stories, but they're accompanied by some really awesome artwork, and the instructions on how to make the things are mostly diagram-based anyway.

There's two basic types of thing to be made from the instructions in the book: weapons and armour for kids to use themselves, and smaller-scale spaceships and monsters and things. I'm really just interested in the weapons and armour, to be honest, to learn the bare basics, then figure out ways of making them bigger, better, and more mechanically complex. There's swords, shields, guns, claw-gauntlets, and so on. Regarding the guns, there's non-firing guns that just look cool, a bazooka that fires a missile made from paper cups, and a magic blaster that shoots a puff of air. I haven't even started to attempt making anything from the book yet, and I've already been thinking of ways to make the last two more powerful than the book's blueprints.

As, like I said, I haven't made anything from the book yet, there's not much more to say. It's a cool little book with some really amazing artwork in it (which was actually the main initial thing that caught my attention). And, you know, it's been pretty hard to get stuff for these monthly posts what with the ongoing boring apocalypse.

Thursday, 25 June 2020

Maniac Racers Advance (Game Boy Advance)

Also known as Motorcross Manaics Advance, this is the second sequel to that orginial Game Boy pirate cart classic, Motorcross Maniacs. (The first sequel was on Game Boy Color, and I might also feature it here someday. Shame they didn't carry the sries onto Nintendo's later handhelds, isn't it?) In case you never played that game, it was a slightly platformy racing game, where you were a little motorbike guy doing laps around crazy tracks full of ramps and loops and such,  all with a strict time limit, and an opponent racer who was so inept that they might as well have not shown up. Maniac Racers Advance is very much a sequel to that game, buidling on its ideas while still having a similar feel.

The main thing you had to worry about in the original was nitro management, and that's the same here. Using them at the right time means getting round the track faster, being able to collect more of them, and being able to take optimal routes, as each course has a few different routes to take, kind of like the stages in the 2D Sonic games, only here the only method of jumping you have is nitro boosting off of ramps. You can also hold left or right to rotate in the air, the main pruose of which is making sure your wheels meet the ground at the correct angle when you land, but you can also show off by doing lots of flips during particularly long jumps, if you are so inclined.

Obviously, the biggest change compared to the original is the graphics: Motorcross Manics was released very early in the Game Boy's life, and like most games of that time, it had very minimalist, functional graphics. By contrast, Maniac Racers Advance looks amazing! The stages take place in a variety of locations, there's a bunch of character to pick from, who all have appealling cartoony designs, and everything's big and colourful. The characters are of course another big change, though they all feel identical to play despite having different stats. You now race against three opponents instead of just one, and once you get past the novice courses, you really do have to do your best to come in first!

Even with that in mind though, it probably won't take more than about an hour to finish the game and unlock everything. That's fine, to be honest, I'm a big proponent of shorter games, but in this case it does feel like something's missing. Maybe it's the fact that most of the tracks are repeated a fair few times over the course of the championship mode? I can't quite put my finger on it, but once I finished the game, I was left asking "is that it?". There are a couple of bonus modes, like one that has you running over zombies, and another where you're wheelying over frozen penguins in a lab to collect stars, but they don't have a lot to offer, either.

I think I can recommend this to anyone with fond memories of the original, though. It might only be an hour long, but it is a good hour, and the feel of the boosts and the midair rotation is  as good as it ever was. It just looks a lot nicer here than it did before.

Saturday, 20 June 2020

Small Games Vol. 7!

This was originally going to just be a post about one PC88 game, a Buddhism-themed action RPG called Gandhara. It's definitely not a small game, as it takes place over a bunch of massive stages, and I only gave up on it, as after a few hours going around stage one, and even finding the entrance to stage two, it was becoming increasingly obvious that I wasn't going to get anywhere. Also, playing it got the ending theme from the old 1970s tokusatsu show Saiyuki/Monkey stuck in my head, and I hope reading the title earlier in this paragraph does the same to a few of you, too. If you want to try it, here's a little help with the controls: Space attacks with your sword, Shift uses your magic (once you get that ability), and 5 on the numberpad lets you pray to certain trees to regain your HP, at the cost of one hundred beads.

So, what do we have instead? First, an interesting little maze game entitled Daidassou, which is all about freeing your comrades from prison! First thing on each stage you have to kill a guard to get his key, then you run around opening cells and leading the inmates to the exit. If you're not careful, inmates can be taken to a special maximum security cell if they're caught by guards, or even killed in the crossfire. It's a cute little game, and it's fun to play, even if it's also very, very hard (it took several attempts just to get past the first stage!). I especially like the isometric look of the game, which results in some mazes looking kind of Escher-esque, and maybe impossible? Like the heights of different floors don't totally make sense all the time.

Finally, The Demon Crystal, which, despire its grandiose title and plot about a demon invasion, seems to take place in a series of suburban houses. You run around these houses, picking up keys to open locked doors, looking for the big key that opens the door to the next stage. It's a nice touch that the rooms behind the locked doors are shrouded in darkness until you enter them, and generally, this is a fun game, mechanically speaking, at least. Unfortunately, it's let down by the fact that the behaviour of most types of enemy is randomised, which can in some cases make the very possibility of being able to complete a stage entirely down to luck. If each enemy type had a learnable pattern, or a specific way they reacted to your presence, then this would have been a great lost classic I could have shown to you all, like an archaologist showing off an amazing artefact. Unfortunately, though, it's not only frustrating to play, but also frustrating to think about what could have been.

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Dossun! Ganseki Battle (SNES)

Dossun! Ganseki Battle is a fantasy RPG-themed versus puzzle game. I wonder if the developers of Yuusha Puzzle, which was featured on the GG Series Collection cartridge for DS that I wrote about long ago had been inspired by it, because the two games have a lot in common, and not just the theming.

Like Yuusha Puzzle, your aim is to defeat various enemies by arranging the various items that fall into your pit into rows of three. Also like Yuusha Puzzle, different items have different effects: swords for physical damage, scrolls for magic damage, potions to heal, and orbs to summons monsters to fight on your behalf. Where the two games differ, though is in mechanical complexity and sophistication.

In Yuusha Puzzle, your foe was just a sprite and a health bar, while in Dossun! Ganseki Battle, they're a full-blown opponent, playing the same puzzle game as you, albeit with various advantages, like more special attacks, a longer health bar and so on. As well as this, there's a more robust chain system, whereby your attacks do more damage the later in a chain they are, and sufficently large chains (though I'm not totally sure whether this is decided by the number of stages in the chain, or the total number of items erased) will trigger a special animated attack for big damage.

It seems kind of unfair to keep comparing these two games, since Yuusha Puzzle was released well over a decade after this game, and it was a budget title/part of a compilation, while this was a full-priced standalone release. Come to think of it though, the passage of time should tilt things in YP's favour, while the circumstances of the two games releases should favour D!GB, so maybe it all evens out? Either way, this is the better game. It's better presented, it plays better, and it's just generally a higher quality game all-round.

That being said, though, is it recommended? Yeah, why not? It's decent enough. There's better puzzle games on SNES, of course, like Magical Drop 3, and Tetris Battle Gaiden, but I think this one's still good enough to be worthwhile.

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

Aa Harimanada (Mega Drive)

You might remember all the way back in 2014, I reviewed the Game Ger version of this, or rather, the Game Gear game that's based on the same source material as this one. Because the two are very different: while the Game Gear game took a somewhat spartan , sports game-like approach, the Mega Drive version has a much flashier fighting game-inspired take on the concept of Sumo. There's even special moves and a health bar!

The most obvious difference though, is that while the Game Gear game's characters all used the same sprite with different colour palletes, this version has all the characters looking different. They're not totally unique, though: every character has a unique head, but it's put onto one of a few different body types, with a variety of skin tones. It's also nice that there are different body types, when you'd think most sumotori would have pretty much the same physique.

Well, they are all pretty mastodonic compared to regular people, but if we take the player character (single player mode has you playing through the story of the manga's protagonist Isao Harimanada) as being an "average" sized sumotori, with most opponents being the same size, then there's also some opponents who are noticably a lot smaller than him, as well as a few who are a lot bigger, standing like mountains of muscle. Body size doesn't seem to be any indicator of how difficult an opponent's going to be, though, which is mainly thanks to the ring out mechanic.

Though you can win by repeatedly slapping and headbutting your opponent into unconsciousness (and also picking them up onto your shoulders and putting them into a Torture Rack hold, in a feat of incredible strength!), most fights will be decided by ring out, sometimes only a couple of seconds after they start. The fighters lock upwhen thy get close enough to each other, and from there, there's a power struggle to get your opponent's back to the edge of the ring, or to throw him overhead to do some damage. Once you get to the edge, depending (I think) on how much health each sumotori has left, either one of them will be thrown out right away, or a new power struggle begins, this time based entirely on who can hit buttons the fastest. So an easy way to win fights is to walk straight into your opponent, keep pressing forward and B to get them over to the edge, then rub all three buttons with the knuckles of your fingers as fast as you can. Of course, I take no responsibility for any damage you might do to your controller or fingers in trying this technique.

I reservedly recommend Aa Harimanada. It's a fun game, and I'm sure it'd be a great laugh to play with friends in between bouts on "proper" fighting games, but even by the standards of a 1993 fighting game, there's not much to entertain a single player, due to there only being one playable character and all. Furthermore, I definitely don't recommend trying to buy a legitimate copy in this day and age, as the prices it fetches online are ludicrous.

Thursday, 4 June 2020

Geograph Seal (X68000)

To be honest, I should really have written about this game years and years ago, and it barely even counts as obscure anymore: along with Cho Ren Sha 68k, this is easily one of the best-known X68000 games, and since Cho Ren Sha has a Windows port, it's definitely the best-known X68000 exclusive. Of course, for a lot of people, just being an X68000 exclusive alone is enough to be considered obscure, so let's just get on with it, eh?

Now, the most obvious thing to say about this game is that it's by the developers of the much-loved Playstation series Jumping Flash, and it acts very much as a genetic forebear to those games, too. It's got similar weapons, the same super-high triple jump, even some of the same fonts are used in its GUI. While those more famous games focussed heavily on the dizzying heights available to the new world of 3D platforming, Geograph Seal is more of a straight first person shooter, where you also happen to have the ability to jump really high. This makes sense, though, as the short draw distance (yes, even shorter than Jumping Flash!) means that any platforming would have been unfair and confusing.

Draw distance aside, it's an incredible-looking game. Seeing it in motion, it's hard to believe it's running on a 16-bit machine from the eighties. Pretty much everything is a 3D model, when they could just as easily have used sprites for the enemies and items, it all moves a lot more smoothly than its console contemporaries like Starwing or Virtua Racing, and even though none of the models are textured, the background is, and even that small thing adds a lot to how the game looks. I remember when I first played this, back on my first PC, on a much earlier version of the emulator xm6, and the backgound images were plain black, and the models weren't even filled in, so it was wireframe on a black background, with no GUI. Even then, it looked pretty good, but now that we can see the game in its full glory, it's on the level of some of the 3D arcade games Namco were putting out in the early nineties, like Cyber Sled and Starblade.

Geograph Seal isn't just a game that was ahead of its time technologically: it's clear that the devs at Exact had a clear view of the direction in which action games were going to go over the following few years, and they were right. I don't know what the reaction to it was on release, but I can only assume that people must have been blown away by a fast, exciting, full 3D game of this quality. It's definitely a game you could have looked at in 1994, and said "this is the future".

I don't really think there's much more for me to say about this game. Yes, you should definitely play it if you haven't already. It's excellent.

Saturday, 30 May 2020

Other Stuff Monthly #13!

As soon as I saw the sun-baked Carlos Ezquerra cover art for El Mestizo, and its yellowed brick-effect logo, I was drawn into it. When I heard the premise, of a mixed-race mercenary fighting in the American Civil War, my interest was peaked even more. Of course, I wasn't let down when I did eventually get ahold of it, as it's a great action story, with no slow moments or filler.

I did have some questions, though, and they're probably the same questions you're thinking about after reading the premise. Mainly: why would a mixed-race former slave act as a mercenary in the Civil War, instead of just fighting against the Confederacy? Well, the story does offer a few answers to this, and I guess they're good enough to allow the reader to get into the action. Basically, it was a pretty anarchic war, and there were some companies in the Union army who were essentially uniformed raiders, pillaging small towns and killing everyone in sight, including the slaves they were meant to be freeing. So El Mestizo is portrayed as a man who'll fight on the side of whoever pays him, but also against anyone who he sees to be harming the innocent, no matter which side's uniform either of the above is wearing. I think another thing that should be taken into account is that most young boys in 1970s Britain probably didn't know or care much about the American Civil War, and it was, to them, just a change of scenery from all the World War II war comics that were popular at the time.

The book's only about sixty-four pages long, but in the old British comics tradition, chapters were only a few pages long each anyway, so not only is the storytelling very dense and full of action, but there manages to be a few complete story arcs in that small space! Mestizo avenges murdered slaves, saves North America from the bubonic plague, and manages to see the end of the Civil War, all in the page space of two or three US-style comic issues! The book even ends on a hook for a sequel that (as far as I know) never came about, set in Mexico.

Obviously, I recommend that anyone interested in comics that cover subject matter outside of the usual stuff gives El Mestizo a read. Like I've already said, it's tightly written, full of action, and the art is esecially excellent, exactly the kind of stuff Carlos Ezquerra seems to have been born to draw.

Monday, 25 May 2020

Coron Land (SNES)

For a brief period in the early nineties, there was a craze of Bomberman wannabes, obviously fuelled by that series' massive popularity, that even managed to sell big expensive multitaps to people in decent numbers, too. I hesitate to call them clones, as while they were all top-down single screen action games with idiosyncratic attack methods and four player versus modes, they mostly each had their own unique gimmicks. (Though there were one or two that were literally just Bomberman knockoffs, like the ninja-themed SNES game Otoboke Ninja Colosseum).

Coron Land's gimmick is kind of snowball-themed. In story mode, you defeat enemies by shooting them a few times, turning them into pink orbs. You can then pick up these orbs and throw them at other enemies, or before doing that, you can make them bigger and more powerful by rolling them along the ground like snowballs. In the multiplayer mode, shooting just stuns your opponents, and the orbs randomly fall from the sky, but they can still be rolled and thrown and so on. It's a fun little thing, and even rolling an orb a short distance is worth doing, just for the little bit of extra damage it does, so rolling doesn't really slow the game down too much.

It probably goes without saying for a game of this type, but the multiplayer mode, even when played alone against CPU opponents, is a lot better than the singleplayer story mode. In this case it's especially so, though, since the story mode has a ludicrously steep difficulty curve, with some very hard enemy types showing up after only a few stages: enemies that can send orbs back at you, enemies that can stun, then pick up and throw you like you do to the orbs, and so on. Multiplayer is fine, I guess. A nice touch is that every player gets to be a differrent character, not just palette swaps of the same one, a feature I don't think the Bomberman series offered until about three or four games in, if I remember rightly. There's also a selection of stages, each offering a slight variation: trains that speed across the stage, running players over, a stage with bouncy walls, a stage with no walls at all, with instant death for players who fall off, and so on.

Coron Land is a decent enough game, I guess. It's not really worth playing unless you have thee friends willing to play it with you, though, and even then, it'd probably be easier to get ahold of a copy of one of the Super Bomberman series. Though having said that, this is a much faster game than Bomberman, so it does have that in its favour.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Wolfchild (Mega CD)

Wolfchild is that precious, rare kind of Mega CD game: it came from a western developer, but it isn't a terrible FMV game or boring edutainment title. Though to be fair, it is from Core Design, who had a reputation in UK magazines, at least, for making great Mega CD titles, after seemingly every publication in the UK lost their minds over their sprite scaling shooter Thunderhawk. It does one bit of FMV though: a charmingly ugly animated intro.

Oher than the intro though, Wolfchild is a pretty typical early 90s platformer, albeit one with something of a psuedo-gritty "dark superhero" setting, that you might see in some of the comics and tabletop RPGs of the time. You play as some guy who's used science to turn himself into a psuedo-werewolf, to go and defeat the evil Chimera group and rescue his scientist dad. Oddly, Wolfchild apparently takes its cues for werewolf abilities from Altered Beast of all places, as the main advantage of wolf form is that you shoot fireballs from your fists.

How transformation works is linked to your health bar: above a certain level, you're a wolfman, below that level, you're just a manman. There's some kind of subtle levelling up ystem in place whereby your maximum health increases as you make your way through the game. I'm not sure whether this is related to scoring points or collecting items, though, as the game does nothing to draw your attention to it happening (I didn't notice it until I'd already played the game a few times). Other than that, this is a pretty standard decent-quality platform game.

There's a few little problems the game has, like how even in wolf form, and after collecting some power-ups, you still don't feel particularly powerful, and the power-ups themselves have a problem that you see in a fair few western platformers of the time, whereby they all just look kind of like tiny indistinct polished orbs (everything else looks great, though. Especially thr backgrounds). There's also one stage of the game that has a few instances of what some call "Rick Dangerous nonsense", where hazards just suddenly pop out of the scenery without warning, meaning the first time you go through an area, you have no way of knowing they're there, and you just have to remember them next time. There's not enough of it to ruin the game, but it is still annoying.

Wolfchild isn't some great classic, but it's not bad, either. I receommend at least giving it a look, definitely.

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Gekitotsu Yonku Battle (NES)

For years, I ignored this title, because the title made me think it was just some generic racing game, unworthy of note. Then, one day, I remembered that I actually quite like racing games, especially old ones that aren't burdened with the tedious albatross of realism. The most ridiculous part of all this is that while Gekitotsu Yonku Battle is a game about cars, it turns out that it's not about racing them at all, and the word "battle" is to be taken more literally than I'd expected.

What this game actually is is a kind of high-speed survival dodgems game. The goal of each stage is to survive until the Teki counter drops from fifty to zero. It goes down by one every time you destroy an enemy car, by ramming them into the walls (or just ramming them enough that they explode on contact). There are also numbered flags that appear around the arena. The flags start out with a number one on them, and over time this gradually increases up to four, until finally the flag turns into an crown, with a value of five. Of course, the Teki counter goes down by the value of the flag/crown on collection. Enemy cars can pick up the flags too, though (and the start aggressively pursuing it in later stages), so you have a little bit of a gambler's choice there: get the less valuable flag now, or wait for it to grow, running the risk of getting nothing at all. (It's worth noting also that flags are worth double their points value in cars, and the crown double that again.)

There's also other items in the stages, which are there from the start and don't respawn, like invincibility stars, and fuel tanks to refill your health. That's really all there is to Gekitotsu Yonku Battle, and that's really all there needs to be! It's a very simple, very fun game, and the only real criticism I can give it is that there's not enough of it: Each stage will take you less than two minutes to get through, and there's only eight of them.

Still, I highly recommend giving this game a shot,whether through emulation, of if you ever encounter a cheap physical copy on your travels.

Saturday, 9 May 2020

Monster Bass (Playstation)

Do you remember those Hot Wheels sets that were clearly designed as a lame attempt to get nerdier kids to buy toy cars? Like, they'd have aliens or dinosaurs or post-apocalyptic landscapes besides the track? Well, Monster Bass (also known as Killer Bass) is a fishing game that puts in a lame attempt at appealing to the under-75s by having genetically-engineered zombie fish and bait that includes lives spiders and mice and so on.

Unfortunately, though, the fish just look like regular fish in-game, the horror theme doesn't actually affect gameplay at all, and after a couple of hours of play, the game had long since started repeating stage locations, but still hadn't let me use any bait besides the spider. That doesn't necessarily mean the game is bad, though, it could still be a fun and accessible fishing game, even if th horror theme's a bust! Unfortunately, while it is accessible, it's not fun. And it's really only accessible in the sense that playing it is so incredibly simple that pretty much anyone could do it, and most of the actual challenge appears to be down to luck rather than skill.

Anyway, the game is structured kind of like a racing game, in more ways than one. Each stage, you're given a quota, like "catch 3 fish", "catch a total of 25lbs of fish", or "catch a fish weighing at least 3lb", and you have to fill that quota as quickly as possible. Like a racing game, whoever finishes first gets the most points, and everyone who finishes below a certain ranking is elminated. This is fine, I've got no problem with this really, except for the weight quota stages, it seems totally random as to how big the fish you catch are, so you can finish them in under a minute, or you can be stuck catching fish after fish, hoping the next one is big enough.

The real problem with Monster Bass is the fishing itself. You cast your bait, and it always travels about 41.7 feet away, no matter what, then you slowly rell it back in towards you, maybe jiggling it about a little, hoping a fish bites. When the fish bites, you just hold the X button down until it's eventually reeled in. You can jiggle the d-pad a bit to increase the line tension, which might make it reel in faster, but I'm not actually certain on that. Then once the fish is brought in, you've either met the stage quota, ending the stage, or you haven't and you go back to toiling at the old fish mines. The fishing mini-game in Breath of Fire III is more complex, more exciting, and more rewarding than this entire retail release that came out almost half a decade later!

Of course, I don't recommend you get hooked on the lame bait that Monster Bass is dangling in front of you. For fishing fans, it's presumably too simple and the theme is probably too silly, and for non-fishing fans, it does nothing to dissuade the notion of fishing being a boring, stupid waste of time.

Monday, 4 May 2020

Magical Tree (MSX)

The great thing about writing about obscure stuff is that sometimes, you find something great, and can then go on to show it off to everyone, so they can enjoy it, too. This is one of those times. Magical Tree is an MSX platform game about climbing a tree. I first tried it out, because I saw the boxart, and thought it might be a clone of Noboranka, the arcade shooting game about climbing a tree. I was wrong, but luckily, it turned out to be better than that anyway.

I'm sure I've mentioned before the concept of "pure" game design. Don't confuse purity with quality, it's just a stylistic assessment. What I mean by it is a concept that was more common in the eighties and early nineties than it is now: videogames in which each element, be it an enemy, an item, a part of the stage ,or something else, serves a specific in-game purpose and is easily identifiable from the other elements around it. Obviously, this kind of thing is much easier to do in simple, old-fashioned, arcade-style games like this one, but it's something you can also see in Minecraft, which is probably one of the most complex videogames of all time. I'm bringing it up here, because Magical Tree is a game that has this purity, and it does it well.

It is a very simple game: you go up the tree, avoiding enemies and collecting points items. At certain score thresholds, you get extra lives, so there's an incentive for playing for score, if that's not enough of a motivating factor for on its own. But like I describe above, you can easily learn how each enemy type acts, how certain objects interact with certain stage elements, and so on, to figure out every way possible of maximising your score, and of surviving to climb a little higher up the tree. Luckily, along with all of that, it is actually fun to play the game and do all this stuff.

One little stylistic thing that I think adds a lot to the game, and how addictive it is, is the constant on-screen tracker of how far up the tree you currently are. It's a constant reminder of your progress, and an easily-remembered benchmark to compare against earlier runs. It's probably copied from the "how high can you get?" screens, but they only appeared between stages, in twenty-five metre increments, while this counter is constant, and counts every metre you climb. It's just satisfying, you know?

Obviously, I recommend that you play Magical Tree. It's fun and cute and addictive. It seems that I keep finding more and more MSX games to love as time goes on, and while other Japanese microcomputers might have excellent graphics or music, it's the MSX's games that keep me coming back most often.