Saturday, 28 November 2020

Drive Girls (PS Vita)

 Drive Girls is a game that had been on my Vita wishlist for a long time, and when you look at it on paper, it's not hard to see why: a beat em up developed by Tamsoft, with a weird gimmick? Of course I'm going to be interested! (The weird gimmick being that the playable characters are girls who can transform into cars.) Unfortunately, I recently got ahold of it, and it's a big disappointment.


The main problem can be boiled down to the fact that although the Simple series was dead by the time Drive Girls came out, it still displays in abundance the worst excesses of that budget range, despite being sold as a full price title. There's a lot of recycling: the enemies are various kinds of generic giant slightly robotic-looking bugs, with only a few models being repeated in different sizes and colours. Even more egregious is the fact that while the first two stages take place in different locations, stages two to six all take place in the same location!


But anyway, the transformation gimmick. For the first few stages, it's a lot of fun! You beat up the enemies, and when a new batch appears in the distance, you transform and drive towards, then into them, as a cool little opening gambit. You'll soon learn that the safest and most effective way of dealing with enemies is to transform and drift around in circles, doing big damages to any bugs that get in your way. Even this gets taken away from the player, though. After about five or six stages, rows and rows of landmines start appearing. The landmines do a ton of damage to you, but they're only set off if you go over them in car mode. So, in lieu of giving the enemies themselves an effective defence against your drifting, the game essentially punishes you for trying to use what is not only its main gimmick, but the most fun and effective way of playing. 


As well as the regular beat em up stages, there's some stages where you race another cargirl around a track. These are surprisingly straight-laced and down-to-earth. The only real deviation from a normal racing game in these stages is that you have a boost that's charged by driving through the small groups of enemies dotted around the tracks. It's okay, but nothing special, and very very easy once you've figured out that running over bugs charges your boost.


This game was a big disappointment. Tamsoft are one of my favourite D-list developers, but I guess Drive Girls really proves that they are still D-list nonetheless. Go and play one of the Oneechanbara games instead, and don't waste any time on this one.

Saturday, 21 November 2020

United States Presidential Race - America Daitoryo Senkyo (NES)

 Here's a rare bit of topicality from this blog, even though it is a couple of weeks late: a game about getting elected to the presidency of the USA, which coincidentally had a translation patch released just as an actual election was taking place in that country in real life. Unfortunately, it's one of those super-abstract stat-manipulation strategy games, and like I said in my review of Graduation, I just don't understand what I'm supposed to be doing or how, so I haven't been able to get particularly far in this one.


I've made a couple of attempts at playing this game, but every time, I get knocked out of the race by scoring fewer than fifteen percent of votes in two consecutive primaries. The way the game works is that you pick a candidate and an assistant, then you go and campaign in primaries, one state at a time. Campaigning means picking three out of several screen's worth of issues, and deciding how far left or right you want to lean on those issues. Then you can decide how many speeches you want to give during the campaign, as well as spending money on opinion polls and TV ad campaigns. I guess the secret to success is figuring out exactly which issues are important to each state, and which direction the people there want you to go in on each issue.


I was actually surprised when I started playing at how specific the politics in the game are. There's three candidates each for Republicans and Democrats, and the Republicans have traits like "Televangelist" and "Anti-Communist", while Democrats have traits like "Liked by unions" and "Black". And the little left/right slider you use when setting policies is actually labelled Democrat and Republican at the left and right ends, respectively. Going in, I'd expected a much more abstract kind of politics, where you just had to manage your campaign budget, maybe avoid randomly-occuring scandals, and so on.


I guess I'll have to say what I always say regarding these games: if you have the patience to figure out how the whole thing works, and get far into it, then it seems like it has a lot to offer. But I can't, so it's just a bunch of boring numbers and a few well-drawn character portraits to me.

Saturday, 14 November 2020

Ninku 2 - Tenkuuryuu e no Michi (Game Gear)

 Ninku was an anime that ran for little over a year in the mid-1990s, but even though it's pretty much completely unknown in English-speaking parts of the world, in that short time it was somehow popular enough in Japan to have spawned seven tie-in games! This one's a fighting game, with a slight emphasis on single player, which makes sense, given how impractical it was setting up multiplayer on handhelds in those days (though it does have a versus link up mode, too).


There's two main modes of play: story mode, which has you playing as the three protagonists (an ugly little boy, a generic young man, and a guy in just his underpants) as you go through the story, watching lavishly pixel-illustrated cutscenes and fighting opponents (including one instance of that annoying little quirk of fighting game story modes: the unwinnable battle). It reminded me a lot of the Game Gear's most famous fighting game, Virtua Fighter The Animation, though it's actually a lot more fun than that, as the more traditional superpowered fighting game style of Ninku 2 fits the GG better than trying to squeeze the realistic martial arts of Virtua Fighter into a tiny 8-bit game. Then there's 1P battle, which is a standard arcade mode, allowing you to play as any of the eight characters in the game, and fighting the others in random order.


The cutscenes aren't the only thing that reminded me of VFTA, either, as the game has a quite impressive faux-zoom thing going on in the fights, too, as if the two characters get far enough apart, the camera zooms out to show everything much smaller at a distance. I'm pretty sure the only way they could have done this is making two complete sets of sprites for each character: one large and one small, as well as a large and small version of every stage. That seems like a lot of work for what is essentially a pointless visual gimmick, but I'm glad they did it, it really makes the game stand out! And it's not the only standout feature, as for an 8-bit fighting game, it's surprisingly complex! There's forwards and backwards dashes, power meters, multiple special moves for each character (and yes, you can do every move as the tiny zoomed-out sprite too!) and so on!


The power meter is something I have to take issue with, unfortunately, though. There's no super moves in the game (as far as I can tell, at least), and the meter instead limits your use of special moves. This alone wouldn't be an issue, but coupled with how meter is built, it becomes one. There's two ways of building meter in this game: charging it by holding punch and kick together, or getting hit. Hitting your opponent doesn't build meter. So all this comes together to de-incentivise using specials, and punishing players for trying to combo their opponents, or wear them down with specials. I can see why they might have done this, to disable "spamming" of specials and also to serve as a primitive comeback mechanic, but it just makes the fights a little less exciting, in my opinion.


Despite that one rather large flaw, Ninku 2 is a game I think is worth playing. It's a lot of fun, and most of the characters look cool! I think if a copy of this game had somehow come into the possession of my nine-year-old self, even though I'd never have seen the show, and wouldn't be able to read even the character names, let alone any of the story text, I think the visuals and the accessible fighting action would have been enough to capture my interest. And then I probably would have spent decades frustrated at how I couldn't get my hands on any English-language Ninku stuff.

Sunday, 8 November 2020

Near Fantasy Space (PC)

 Now, I'm sure you'll all take one look at these screenshots and you'll instantly know one thing: this is a Fantasy Zone fangame. And while that's an accurate assesment, it's also an incomplete one! Because Near Fantasy Space might take most of its aesthetic and mechanical inspiration from SEGA's pschedelic shooting game series, it uses them as a skeleton to pay homage to a whole bunch of other shooting games too! How efficient!


Now, I'm going to have to be honest with you all here: on this blog, I've always insisted on only using my own screenshots to illustrate my reviews. Unfortunately, Near Fantasy Space is one of those cases where that stubborn adherence to principles has somewhat limited my capacity to show all the cool stuff a game has to offer. So while I can show you the first three stages, which pay homage to Ikaruga, Battle Garegga, and R-Type respectively, you'll have to go elsewhere to see the later stages homaging the likes of Darius, Gradius, Fantasy Zone itself, and more. Sorry.


Other than the stages themselves, more little treats are on offer in the super-cute weapon shop screen, which is made to look like a modern shopping website, compllete with star ratings on each item and some recommendations right at the bottom. Furthermore, the rapid fire item looks just like the Rapid Fire Unit peripheral that was released for the Master System!


The most frustrating thing about the game's difficulty is how uneven it is. The stages themselves are actually pretty easy, and if you're not totally useless at shooting games, they shouldn't really offer you any trouble. The bossfights, by contrast, are harrowing ordeals. The bosses take an incredible amount of punishment before going down, and they definitely aren't shy about dishing it out, either. I almost wrote this game off, as I was having such a hard time getting past the second stage's boss, and I didn't want to post a review that only had sreenshots of two stages, but after about an hour of repeated failure, I eventually got past it. I will say this though: seeing how each new stage pays homeage to its inspiration is a pretty nice reward for getting through each bossfight.


Near Fantasy Space is a game that was clearly made with a lot of love, and like the X68000 game Scorpius that I reviewed a few years ago, is living proof of the fact that old-style shooting games are significantly more difficult than modern danmaku-style games. You can get it pretty cheaply online if you don't want to seek out a physical copy, and if you have the fortitude for a game with such a small amount of mercy, then I recommend you do so.

Monday, 2 November 2020

Sabnack (X68000)

 There's something about the title of this game that's just so ugly, isn't there? Look at it: Sabnack. Ugh. The game itself doesn't look very nice, either, considering it's a commercial release on the X68000, a computer known for having amazing looking ports of arcade games years before consoles could really manage it. But let's not hold those things against it, as a game it's actually alright. In fact, it manages to make a Sokoban-style game actually interesting!


I usually find the block-pushing action of Sokoban games as embodying a combination of negative traits. Right from the start, they're usually too difficult to even get ahold on them, and you couple this with the fact that they're often literally about pushing boxes in a warehouse and it's all so off-putting and unrewarding that I just don't want to figure out how to get further into them.


Sabnack solves both issues! It opens with stages that are deceptively easy, teaching you how all the game's elements work and interact with each other, before gradually turning up the difficulty as you go on. I managed to get through eight whole stages before it got too hard for me! 


You play as a little man in a cape, and you can go up to statues and bring them to life, so they follow you, until getting stuck behind a wall or something makes them go more than one space away from you, at which time they urn back into statues. The goal of each stage is to take the fairy to the exit, and turn her back into a statue. But there are also enemies in each stage, and if any of them touch you or an un-statued fairy, you fail (though you get infinite lives, so it's not too bad). There are other statues around, too, like knights, who destroy enemies with whom they come into contact, and guys that look like wizards, whose purpose I haven't been able to figure out. So each stage uses these elements, along with various different kinds of enemies that each have their own movement rules, to create all kindss of different challenges for the player. It's that "purity" thing I've talked about before.


However, just like with puzzle platformers, I have to put my hands up and admit that this is a genre of game I just don't get along with. If you do, it definitely seems like a high-quality, well-designed iteration of the concept that's worth giving a shot. A cop out of a conclusion, but there it is.