Thursday, 26 March 2015

Simple DS Series Vol. 18: The Soukou Kihei Gunground

I've covered a fair few Simple Series games in the past, on the Playstation, PS2 and PSP, but the Simple DS Series warrants a bit of an extra introduction. Like all the other versions of the series, it's a long string of budget games that tend to have fairly generic titles with a few diamonds hidden in the rough. What's special about the Simple DS Series though, is that there seems to be a higher level of technical quality than you might expect from a budget series of games on the original DS. You might expect a lot of cheap-looking touchscreen minigame compilations, but there's a lot of polygon-heavy action games with pretty high production values.

The Soukou Kihei Gunground is an entry into what I feel is a pretty under-subscribed subgenre: military giant robot-themed action platformers whose progenitor is (as far as I know) Assault Suits Leynos. It has most of the common features: parts upgrading, a setting that seems heavily inspired by Soukou Kihei Votoms (obviously), even the missions have the same kinds of objectives and locations that other games have.

There's stages where the player just has to make their way from left to right, stages where every enemy has to be destroyed, stages where certain items have to be defended or destroyed or collected. And they take place in jungles, deserts, mountains, cities and secret bases. Upgrading is pretty simple, with a shop selling new weapons and parts, as well as healing items that can be used during play via the touch screen. (The touchscreen's only use in this game is for changing weapons and using items.) Menus are all in Japanese, but there's plenty of numbers and other visual representation, so navigation won't be too big a problem after you get used to things (and I'm assuming that most people who regularly read this blog can at least recognise the katakana for "save" and "load").

There's also ther option to change the colours of every indiviual part of your mecha, but unfortunately the developers have gone with a "realistic" look for the game, so no matter what colours the player picks, their mecha will still look like an ugly greyish pile of boxes. Most of the enemy mecha, at least, look like boldly coloured green or orange piles of boxes. I assume the developers of this particular title just had problems getting good 3D from the DS though, as all the backgrounds are pretty nice looking pixel art, all colourful and detailed.

The single player game is pretty good, and as I said, it's not a genre with a lot of options, especially on handhelds, but the game also has a pretty great multiplayer option. It actually has two multiplayer options, but the other one's a bit disappointing. They both allow download play with a single cartridge though, which is always nice.

Starting with the disappointment, there's the co-op mode. I was really looking forward to this mode before playing it, teaming up with some friends to smash enemy mecha sounded great, but unfortunately, the missions are so trivially easy with multiple players, there's no fun to be found here. The versus mode is a lot better though. It's pretty much as you'd imagine: each player enters into a small stage and wages battle until only one remains. Since all the available mecha are bipedal, it doesn't have the variety that the similar versus mode found in the SNES game Metal Warriors, but it does have the advantage of being on handhelds, so each player has their own screen.

Yeah, The Soukou Kihei Gunground is a pretty good game. I wouldn't pay a lot for it, but it's definitely worth a look if you happen across a copy going cheap.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Andorogynous (MSX)

Obviously, the title is a mistransliteration of the word "androgynous" from English in Japanese and then back again. But since there's no obvious gender-related themes in the game, I'll just assume that the developers were just going for a word that sounded sciencey and biological and this is the one they went with.

Anyway, the game's a vertically scrolling shooter with two twists: the scrolling goes down instead of up, and the player can only shoot to the left and right. The incongruity between the shooting and scrolling axes serves two purposes: the first, and most obvious is the mechanical purpose. When your enemies mainly come from above or below, having to maneuver youself to shoot them from the sides puts you at an automatic disadvantage. The second purpose is one of atmosphere: the player character's shooting range is ill-suited for their environment. Coupled with the fact that they are some kind of humanoid slowly floating down a hostile, biological pit, this helps create a feeling that the player is a fish-out-of-water, a soldier behind enemy lines in every sense.

Atmosphere is one of Adorogynous' strongest points, and the developers ( and more specifically, the artists) have really played to the MSX's strengths and weaknesses. The graphics are just detailed enough that you can see that everything around you is a living organism, including the walls and the shots your enemies fire at you, while at the same time are just vague enough to allow the player's imagination to fill in the blanks. What this does is give the impression of descending and being surrounded by a pulsating and oozing organic hell, even though a more detailed and more animated depiction of such would be beyond the host hardware.

The game itself is fun to play, though it is also brutally, unforgivingly difficult. I've completed Mushihimesama Futari on a single credit, but even after hours of play and dozens of attempts, I've yet to even see the second boss of Andorogynous. In the interest of fairness, I should point out that it's a testament to the game's quality that I even bothered to try so long and so hard before giving up. There's a couple of specific flaws that make the game even harder than its level design intends, too. Firstly, the power-ups tend to appear in the same places, but whih power-ups appear is totally random. In one particularly absurd case, the game started the second stage by giving me two extra lives. Secondly, there's an old bugbear typical of a shooting game this old, the "slippery slope" of losing all one's power-ups on death as well as being sent back to a checkpoint, meaning the loss of one life makes progress incredibly difficult. Finally, there's a weird bug I found. The best weapon power-up is the 2-way/3-way shot offered by a white letter L. Collecting once gives you 2-way shots, collecting twice gives 3-way.Collecting a third, however, demotes the player back to a single stream of shots.

In conclusion, I can only really recommend Andorogynous if you're looking for a true challenge. It is a good game, that' high in quality in most respects, but like I said, it's brutally, insanely hard.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Gyakuten!! Puzzle Bancho (Arcade)

The title of this game actually tells you a lot about it. It's a puzzle game, and the characters are banchos (that is, a certain kind of tough teenage delinquent that had its heyday in the 70s and 80s, and have a bunch of attatched stereotypes). Also, I'm pretty sure that "gyakuten" means something along the lines of "comeback" or "reversal", and there's a pretty good mechanic relating to that in this game.

But before I get on to the mechanics, I want to talk about how great it looks. It's made by Fuuki, and like their most well-known games, Asura Blade and its sequel Asura Buster, it's full of large character sprites and very bold and vibrant colours. I don't know how they do it, but something about the colour in Fuuki's games really bursts forth from the screen, and Puzzle Bancho is no exception to that. The designs of the characters and the world they inhabit is well-done, too, being extremely exagerrated caricatures of bancho stereotypes. There's also a sukeban (female bancho) character, and I'm sure I've mentioned before how mysteriously absent they tend to be from videogames, so that's nice too.

As for the mechanics, it's a versus-style puzzle game of the sort that sprung up in droves in the wake of Puyo Puyo. Coloured blocks fall from above, and react when placed together in groups of three. The blocks come in large and small variants, and upon "reaction", the large blocks disappear, and the small blocks grow into large ones. Obviously, this opens up a new way to make chains (and as is usual for these games, chaining is the most important thing): if three small blocks react and grow into large ones, those large blocks will instantly react again and disappear.

By now, you might wonder where the "comeback" concept comes into things. Like most games of this type, there's garbage blocks that fall upon the opponents of skilled players. When a large block disappears while touching a garbage block, the garbage block becomes a small block of the same colour. With proper planning, a good (or very lucky) player can use the garbage blocks to form monstruous chains that wouldn't otherwise be possible.

Although it's a good game with no real downsides, I can't really recommend Gyakuten!! Puzzle Bancho. Unless you really love versus puzzlers and want to play every one, or if you really love the aesthetic, it's just not different enough or any better than the likes of Puyo Puyo or Magical Drop.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Chou Shoujuu Mecha MG (DS)

If any development studios could be considered auteurs, Sandlot would definitely be among them. There are a few things their games tend to feature: giant things (especially robots), destructible environments, unorthodox control schemes, huge amounts of missions and similarly huge amount of options with regards to how players tackle those missions.

Chou Shoujuu Mecha MG has all of these things. You might have gathered this from the title, but it's a game about giant robots. Specifically, it's a game about controlling giant robots. This might seem an odd distinction to make, since most games are about controlling things, but CSMMG takes it to a new level. There are many selectable mecha in the game, and they each have unique control schemes.

In what must be one of the best uses of a touch screen gimmick, though all the mecha use the d-pad or face buttons to move around, they each have a unique control panel on the DS's bottom screen. The control panels all have various switches, buttons, dials and other stuff for controlling weapons and other functions the mecha have.

They aren't just lazy reskins, either: each one is different to all the others, there's a robot samurai that turns into a racecar, a giant toy robot that has powerful weapons, but needs to be regularly wound up, a bow-wielding robot that has you pulling back and releasing arrows on the touchscreen.

The variety also stretches to the missions. There's the obvious combat missions, against gangs of generic enemies, as well as solo mecha with similar diversity in design as your own, there's moving huge objects around, destroying stuff, races, contests to destroy more stuff than your rival and so on.

I definitely recommend Chou Shoujuu Mecha MG: it's fun, there's tons of stuff to do, and it looks great. The only problem with it is that i can't really talk more about it without just listing the cool things that are in it.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Kaze no Notam (Playstation)

You might have already seen the boxart and title screen for this game posted on tumblr before. For some reason, though, no-one seems to have actually taken any in-game screenshots, and with the exception of a miserable, point-missing review on GameFAQs, no-one seems to have written on the game, either.

So what you probably aleady know is that it's a game about riding around in a hot air balloon. It's a product of Artdink, who seemed to be having something of an experimental period in the mid-90s, with this along with other non-traditional games like Aquanaut's Holiday and Tail of the Sun. So, what you might be wondering is how they made a game out of Hot Air Ballooning, and the answer is: they barely did. 

The biggest unique point of Kaze no Notam is its controls. The player can't just steer their balloon about as they like, and are instead subject to the whims of the winds. A column on the right side of the screen shows the direction of the wind at different altitudes, and the only direct control the player has over their balloon is to ascend and descend to try and keep themselves in their desired air current. 

There are a few different game modes: finding a target on the ground and shooting it, shooting at three widespread points to make a huge triangle, and shooting down other balloons. None of them are particularly engaging though, but that's okay, since they only seem to be included as a token concession towards traditional videogamery, and the aforementioned controls mean that trying to beat times or play efficiently is a fool's errand. 

The real point of Kaze no Notam is to just leisurely fly around the maps, sightseeing and relaxing. The maps are huge, and full of cool stuff to see: futuristic cities, mountain-topping mansions, ruins of lost civilisations, and so on. The game lets players pick any of the maps right from the start, and also gives a choice from a few different times of day and weather conditions. As if to really hammer home the point that the game is more about aesthetics and mood than it is about mechanics and challenge, neither the time nor weather options actually affect the gameplay at all.

I definitely recommend that you seek out and play Kaze no Notam, for two reasons. The first is that it's a perfect example of how a videogame can be more than just its mechanics, and the second that it's a great little time capsule of a time when the advent of textured polygons was widening the scope of the kinds of games that could exist, and before the risk-minimising homogeneity of large-budget game development had sanitised and narrowed the scope back down.
   This game is also known as "Notam of Wind"

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

SEGA Master System Brawl (Mega Drive)

So, this is a homebrew, by a guy named Bonaf on the SMSPower forums. It's pretty good, too. The concept is that it takes characters from a bunch of the Master System's most iconic games, and puts them in a one-on-one fighting game, using only the abilities they have in their original games. (If I remember rightly, there was a similar fangame made for PC by a Japanese developer years ago, but with Famicom characters).

The roster is surprisingly big, and contains most of the characters you'd think of first when you think of the Master System, from SEGA's big names like Alex Kidd, Opa Opa, Joe Musashi and Sonic down to lesser-known heroes like Psycho Fox and Master of Darkness' Dr. Social. The only quibbles I have with the roster are that the absence of any characters from Masters of Combat or Virtua Fighter The Animation seems a bit odd, and that Bonaf has used Riki from Black Belt, rather than Kenshiro from Hokuto no Ken. (Though there are some little nods to HnK in Riki's pre-fight quote and winpose).

The presentation is pretty good. Obviously, the music and most of the graphics are taken from various Master System games, so though they won't meet the usual high MD standards, they're still colourful and charming. There are some original graphics, though: each character has a winpose, and though I'm not 100% certain on this, in think they're all-new.

Now for the most important part: how the game actually plays. The controls are simple: there's a jump button, an attack button and a "special" button. The special button only seems to be used by one character though: Psycho Fox uses it to change between forms. Obviously, every character's movements and attacks are different, since they've all been taken from different games and even different genres, and as a result, the balance isn't really that great. Certain characters (Sonic, Opa Opa, and Steve (of My Hero fame) in particular) totally dominate against almost any opponents, while others (Bean, Dr. Social, Wang) can struggle to land a single hit on their opponents.

What I don't want you to take from this is that SMS Brawl is a bad game, because it's not. Despite the balance issues, it's a ton of fun to play, and a great love letter to a system that doesn't get the love it deserves, especially on the NES-worshipping internet, and I totally recommend that you go get it and play it.