Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Spark Man (Arcade)

Spark Man is a Rolling Thunder-esque walking shooter from South Korea, with a few of its own eccentricities, both mechanically and aesthetically.

It begins before a coin is even inserted, with the title screen depicting the hand of god bestowing electric life unto an androgynous cyborg. Androgynous apparently being a very apt word in this case, as between coin insertion and the start of the first stage, the player is treated to a profile of the game's protagonist, including their country of origin (Republic of Korea), date of birth (1994, which along with the given age of 16 sets the game in 2010/11), parents (Electroman and Fire Lady) and then sex, for which both male and female symbols are listed. Does Spark Man identify him/herself as being somewhere on a gender spectrum, rather than a binary male or female? Amazingly progressive for a game from 1989!

Most of the game doesn't do anything particularly exciting or innovative, having the player saunter from left to right shooting awkward-looking guys dressed in red (with the odd guy in green and every now and then, a panther or two), occasionally picking up a temporary weapon power up (which last for far too short a time).
There are a few interesting ideas in there, though. Roughly once a stage, a (somewhat stupid-looking) flying platform, allowing the player to fly around the screen dropping bombs on enemies. The bosses have another nice little quirk: they're all (as far as I've seen) giant robots (including what I assume is an unlicenced cameo from a Star Wars AT-ST), and rather than having health bars, they have visible crew members on board, a certain number of whom must be shot before the robot dies.

"Somewhat stupid-looking" is a phrase that can be used to describe a lot of things about Spark Man. The enemies and protagonist have an awkward, uncomfortable way of standing and walking, the flying platform, and the way Sparky sits on it look bizarre, and the stages, apparently set in America and the USSR both look like they were drawn by someone who had only the flimsiest knowledge of the countries. I'm not saying any of the art in the game is bad or poorly-drawn, there's just some kind of vague offness about how it all looks.

For all it's faults, Spark Man isn't a terrible game, if you're curious, there's no reason not to check it out, but if you don't you're definately not missing out on a classic or anything.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Net Yaroze Round-Up Volume 2!

Decaying Orbit (Scott Cartier, David Dewitt, 1999)
This was a game I loved back when Yaroze games were being given away with magazine demo discs. In it,
the player controls a tiny spaceship, flying from planet to planet, shooting enemy turrets and activating beacons. The interesting part, however, is the psuedo-realistic physics engine. Every planet has gravity, and not only will larger planets try to pull your ship into orbit, but you can also "slingshot" around planets to travel at super-high speeds. Unfortunately, the game doesn't really want to put up with these kinds of shenanigans, and travelling at extreme velocities will usually result in either flying off the map or smashing violently into a planet. There is, however, an edit mode, allowing players to create their own maps, and play with the engine to their heart's content.

Hover Racing (Tomukazu Sato, 1997)
People talk a lot about Terra Incognita being a yaroze game of particularly high production values, and though it's not very well known, Hover Racing is another one that with a bit of polish could at least pass for a Simple 1500 Series game. In essence, it's a blatant F-Zero knock-off, with low-poly hovering vehicles
speeding around floating racetracks. It's of a high quality, and there's lots of tracks, but it is brutally hard, both by design and by virtue of its bizarre controls. Left and right on the d-pad are used to go left and right on the track, to avoid walls and the like, but to actually turn corners requires an unusual combination of shoulder buttons: to turn left, the player must hold L2 and R1 together (and vice versa). If you have the patience to learn it, it'd probably be very satisfying to play.

Bouncer 2 (Scott Evans, 1998)
It's an Arkanoid clone with a gimmick! A pretty interesting gimmick at that: instead of a ball and a bat, the player controls a small see-saw, with two men bouncing on it taking the place the place of the ball. Although
the gimmick is interesting, unfortunately, it doesn't save the game. The problem the game has is that the stages are enormous, and it feels like it takes forever to get through them. It's a shame really, as I do enjoy a good Arkanoid clone.

Clone (Stuart Ashley, 1997)
A first person shooter that places the player in dark, gloomy mazes inhabited by strange zombie-like monsters with transparent skin and targets on their chests. It's definitely atmospheric, and there's a simple charm to the way it plays. There's nothing particularly wrong with the game, it's just that all the stages look
the same and there's only one kind of enemy, so it struggles to hold my attention for long. But still, it is a little bit charming too, and despite the primitive visuals, it does manage to maintain a sliver of tension and atmosphere.

Psychon (Ben James, 1998)
A top-down shooter that's obviously heavily inspired by the Alien Breed series on the Amiga. The player controls a space marine-looking guy around a dirty, cramped spaceship/futuristic slum/place, shooting everyone one they meet and collecting bullets, keys and healing items. There's also four glowing things that need to be found and switched off on each stage before the exit will open. The game looks great, in a grimy, British sci-fi kind of way, and it plays pretty well too, though it's a lot harder than I remember it being.
Psychon's another one that was a favourite back in the days of yore, especially thanks to it having a 2-player co-op mode.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Kakutou Bijin Wulong (PS2)

I'll apologise in advance for the quality of the screenshots accompanying this post. PS2 screenshots tend to look pretty bad at the best of times, but for some reason this game was particularly unphotogenic.

Kakutou Bijin Wulong is a beat em up developed by Dream Factory, though unfortunately there isn't much trace of their trademark roguelike elements in there, other than a stamina bar that can be used to partially restore the player's health by resting. It does use their typical control method, though, with a face button each for low, medium and high attacks, and shoulder buttons for jumping, guarding and grappling.

It's also based on a comic of the same name (or sometimes known as "Fighting Beauty Wulong"), and though I haven't read that comic and the game is entirely in Japanese, from what I can work out, the game's about a teenage girl (who might be an immigrant to Japan from China?) being taught to fight by an old man (her grandad?), who uses a very on-the-job approach to martial arts tutelage, forcing the girl to repeatedly prove herself by fighting in various situations. And these situations are the stages of this game. Oddly, though the game has its origins in a comic, there's something about the aesthetic and the way the game feels that reminds me more of those slightly seedy low budget tokusatsu heroine movies and series that companies like Zen Pictures put out.

Because the game is really, brutally hard, I've only been able to get a few stages in, and so far I've been on the seedy backstreets fighting criminal goons, in a dojo fighting trainee wrestlers, out in the woods fighting wild bears and then in a wrestling ring in a flashy stadium, fighting pro wrestlers.

The stages are laid out in a typical beat em up fashion: you start in an area and beat up everyone there before moving on to the next area. After a few areas, you'll fight a boss, and then go onto the next stage. An interesting and unique element the game has is that for each area, the player is randomly given five items, which are selected by pressing left and right on the d-pad, and used with up on the d-pad (movement is done using the left analogue stick, of course). These items will be a mix (different every time) of any of five things: health-restoring melons, stamina-restoring cheese wedges, and red, blue or green cards. The cards are the most interesting ones, as each one represents a different special move: blue is a powerful strike straight ahead on one target, green is a hurricane kick-type maneuver that will hit anyone near the player, and best of all, red picks up the nearest enemy for a giant swing, which then damages any enemies that get in the way of it.

This is an interesting alternative to more common systems, like specials limited by a power bar or performed via input commands. Interesting and original, but not necessarily good. Like always with random elements, the "five items" mean the player sometimes has to rely on luck more than skill to proceed, and unlike in some games, such as roguelikes and even Dream Factory's trademark roguelike/beat em up hybrids, rather than feeling like an extra little challenge that forces players to be resourceful and cunning, it just feels cheap, and like the player would be better off resetting and trying again on receipt of a bad hand.

That said though, Kakutou Bijin Wulong isn't a bad game, it's not a chore to play or anything, and though it's on a console with more than a generous helping of beat em ups, it could still be worth a look if you've played a fair few of them already and still want more.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Net Yaroze Round-Up Volume 1!

I've been wanting to feature Yaroze games on here for a while now. Originally, I was going to have a themed month, but I didn't like the idea of having consecutive posts on a single subject. Then, I considered a "Top 20" of my favourite Yaroze games, but list posts are a bit sterile and "clickbaity", and I have my integrity to think of! Plus, a Top 20 would mean leaving out games that are interesting, but not particularly fun to play. In the end, I've decided to make this an occaisional series of posts, kind of like the Disc Station ones (which will return someday, I promise!). Oh, and in case any of you aren't familiar with Net Yaroze, it was a scheme by Sony in the late 90s, where they would sell Playstation dev kits to homebrew developers. Some of the games were distributed to the public via magazine coverdiscs, others were only available online between other Yaroze users. Luckily, a lot of the games and demos have been compiled and made available online by kindly hackers and pirates and archivists.

A Bob (K. Okada, H. Endo, J. Suehiro, M. Taniguti, 1998)
A Bob (also known as Airbob) is a cute little bobsledding game. You pick a team, tap square to make them run to the ramp, use the dpad to steer their sled down the ramp, and then press buttons according to the onscreen prompts to make them do stunts and open their parachutes on the way down after jumping from the end of the ramp. There's really only about 2 minutes of game in here, but the graphics are really cute, with the sledders looking like cuddly little space robots. It's worth at least one play just for that, right?

Rocks n Gems (Gerhard Rittenhofer, 1998)
It's a Boulderdash clone! A really well presented Boulderdash clone, too. It looks great, and it mostly feels pretty professional, with only one crack in its veneer: the player character moves way too fast. The game's hard enough as it is, but it also requires precise movement in almost all situations, but the protagonist's speed makes this a pain. The difficulty didn't go unnoticed either, as I definitely remember the UK Official Playstation Magazine printing a password to unlock every stage, which is pretty special for a Yaroze game.

Haunted Maze (Edward Federmeyer, 1998)
Essentially a kind of minimalist Pac-Man clone, Haunted Maze has the player running around a fairly open-plan maze, avoiding skinless zombies and collecting "goodies", which look a lot like giant Lucky Charms marshmallows. Despite the incredibly simple premise, I really enjoy this game. The speed of the game, coupled with the classical soundtrack and the somewhat basic visuals give the game a kind of silent movie slapstick feel.

INVS (Philippe-Andre Lorin, 2001)
I really like this one, it's a psuedo-old-school single-screen shooting game. It kind of anticipates the experimental direction Taito took with some of the more recent Space Invaders games, like Infinity Gene and Extreme. There's some cool enemy concepts, like ones that intercept the player's shots with lasers, and dive-bombing enemies that create pretty large explosions if they're allowed to hit the ground. There's also a nice little mechanic whereby enemies will sometimes release small snowflake-like particles, that are collected to activate the player's shield and temporarily power up their shots.

Gas Girl (Koji Yoshikawa, 1998)
This is one of those games I mentioned in the intro, one of the ones that is more interesting than it is good. It's a platform game about a woman who gets abducted by aliens, and must fart her way to freedom. The one positive thing that can be said about this game is that the farting gimmick is using in a number of ways: it's a weapon to defeat enemies, a propulsion system to boost the distance of the player's jumps, and it can be used to affect the movement of certain obstacles. But otherwise, the game is awful in pretty much every way, and I suspect it mainly exists because of some kind of special interest on the part of the creator.